Writer Tony McNamara loves to play with history. He did so with Queen Anne in “The Favourite.” Now he’s toying with Catherine the Great in “The Great.”
Like the Oscar-winning film, “The Great” isn’t afraid to dabble in contemporary behavior or traffic in ribald language. It has its share of sex, too, and is a great playground for actors like Elle Fanning and Douglas Hodge. Fanning gets the title role; Hodge is a member of the court who’s often ridiculed by Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), an abrasive leader who lashes out at anyone who doesn’t laugh at his jokes and second his notions.
Fanning’s Catherine, however, puts up with little of it. She pushes back immediately (particularly when he kills her pet bear) and begins a plot of her own. With the help of Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), someone who’s also moved by literature, she figures out a way to beat Peter at his own game.
Clearly, McNamara is targeting current leaders who are also petulant and rash. He dresses it up, however, in lavish costumes and ornate settings, suggesting the world is divided into haves (who are clueless) and have-nots (who aren’t).
Airing on Hulu, the 10-part series has many a-ha moments, particularly when Fanning and her followers discover new ways into the old, old world.
A simple check of Google could tell you how this all turns out but it’s fascinating to see how McNamara bends the narrative to fit the message.
Catherine – who had a great run on her own – had plenty of people in another camp. “The Great” shows how some of them try to tear her down on her rise to the top. But she finds her own way of dealing with the detractors. Fanning offers knowing glances to those she trusts, vacant stares to those she doesn’t. She has the attitude down perfectly and figures out just what trips Peter’s trigger.
Hoult, who’s often in supporting roles in these kinds of films, seizes every opportunity to strut and preen for his subjects. Like the king in “Hamilton,” he’s great comic relief and a pawn in Catherine’s mental game.
Dhawan is a fun-co-conspirator as well. He sees how wrong some of the king’s actions are and uses his standing with others to change popular opinion.
Throughout the series, heads roll, heroes fall and idiots prevail. Knowing Catherine has a greater plan – one that doesn’t involve wearing hats – proves comforting.
“The Great” looks like an expensive film, moves like an epic miniseries and delights like a viral Instagram post.
It’s a delicious wallow that gives Fanning and Hoult a place to show they’re not just also in the cast. They’re pretty great, too.
“The Great” is now airing on Hulu.