The Reel Review
Elle Fanning stars in this satirical dramedy series about the rise of Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest serving ruler, during the late 1700s. The Hulu series is the brainchild of Tony McNamara, co-writer of the 2018 18th century period comedy, The Favourite, and is based on his 2008 London play.
In this quirky, slightly revisionist tale, we follow Catherine as she evolves from a deliriously optimistic newcomer to a politically shrewd strategist, actively plotting to seize the throne from her imbecile of a husband, expertly played by Nicholas Hoult. McNamara takes some liberties with the facts – Catherine described the real Peter III as profoundly unattractive from a severe bout with smallpox, her coup against her husband/second cousin took decades to carry out and it only happened after she produced an heir. McNamara does, however, accurately touch on the couple’s miserable marriage and their many extramarital affairs, as well as Catherine’s introduction of the arts and science into Russian culture and one of her greatest contributions – the introduction of smallpox vaccines into a previously wary Russian population. McNamara also tackles that nasty false rumor about Catherine and a horse. His writing is exceptional.
The period costumes are spectacular and the vulgar dialogue, while wildly inappropriate for children, does have a certain amount of bawdy charm. Fanning gives a hilarious, insightful performance, as does Hoult as the dimwitted, petulant philistine king. And the ensemble cast – in particular, Phoebe Fox (Eye in the Sky) as Catherine’s maid, Belinda Bromilow (Doctor Doctor) as Peter’s aunt and Sebastian de Souza (Medici) as Catherine’s lover – help bring even more color to this highly entertaining series. Huzzah!
• Writer Tony McNamara worked with Nicholas Hoult in The Favourite.
• In the series, Peter III makes several references to his mother, but in reality she died shortly after childbirth so he never knew her. It was her younger sister, Empress Elizabeth, who was his predecessor.
• Will there be a Season 2? Says Elle Fanning of creator Tony McNamara, “He’s definitely thinking about it. He has some idea. If they wanted to do it, I would do it right away.”