×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Catherine the Great

If posterity had taken its cue from Marvin J. Chomsky's latest historical miniseries, "Catherine the Great," feisty trailblazer Catherine II, Empress and Czarina of All the Russias, might have been known as Catherine the Not-So-Great. Despite broad ambitions and rich source material, so-so show may be likened to Russian nesting dolls in that most of its components, while brightly colored, are wooden and hollow. Two-part miniseries won't be consigned to broadcast Siberia but, like Cossacks on horseback, risks a chilly reception in the territories it attempts to conquer.

With:
Cast: Catherine Zeta Jones, Paul McGann, Ian Richardson, Mel Ferrer, Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif, Hannes Jaenicke, Craig McLachlan, Brian Blessed, Agnes Soral, Veronica Ferres, John Rhys-Davies, Mark McGann, Stephen McGann, Horst Frank.

If posterity had taken its cue from Marvin J. Chomsky’s latest historical miniseries, “Catherine the Great,” feisty trailblazer Catherine II, Empress and Czarina of All the Russias, might have been known as Catherine the Not-So-Great. Despite broad ambitions and rich source material, so-so show may be likened to Russian nesting dolls in that most of its components, while brightly colored, are wooden and hollow. Two-part miniseries won’t be consigned to broadcast Siberia but, like Cossacks on horseback, risks a chilly reception in the territories it attempts to conquer.

Although it never bores, choppy look at the Russian sovereign’s early career and love life addresses the sweep of history with the indiscriminate sucking power of a Dust Buster instead of the light touch of a broom. Historical figures — some of whom are difficult to keep straight due to look-alike wigs and garb or the fact that they’re brothers in real life — are deposited and removed with unsubtle expediency.

Popular on Variety

Catherine Zeta Jones joins a long line of actresses, including Pola Negri, Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, who have played the young lass who was plucked from relative obscurity in Germany, married into the Russian royal family and who, under the influence of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, is credited with bringing Russia from the Middle Ages into something approximating the modern age.

Zeta Jones, who is easy on the eye both in and out of period costume, imparts a certain grace and resolve to her sovereign-in-the-making but, per pic, comes to power through maneuvers on the order of tic-tac-toe, whereas the true machinations were surely closer to chess.

The Empress Elizabeth (Jeanne Moreau), distressed that the marriage that united her 17-year-old sonPeter (Hannes Jaenicke) to 15-year-old Catherine has yet to be consummated after seven years, orders Saltykov (Craig McLachlan) to deflower and impregnate Catherine.

After waiting seven years to discover that she enjoys sex, Catherine makes up for lost time. She reads Montesquieu while waiting for her lover, Gregory Orlov (Mark McGann), conceives his child, then seizes power with the help of the military and has her objectionable lout of a hubby garroted after a mere six-month stint as Czar. Part one brings us seven days into Catherine’s epic reign.

Part two begins with Catherine’s splashy coronation, which is disrupted by a mad monk. Tangled intrigue comes and goes as Catherine falls hard for Orlov’s look-alike regiment mate, Potemkin (Paul McGann) — who forsakes a monastery for the battlefield — while a barrel-chested peasant hero, Pugachev (John Rhys-Davies), poses as the slaughtered Czar.

Catherine’s abrupt voiceover in the last three minutes compresses decades of activity with the alacrity of a trash compactor.

Lensed in Vienna and at Babelsberg studios, pic takes place in a Russia in which the thermometer never drops below parasol-toting temperatures and all battles (which rarely involve more than a dozen soldiers on each side) are fought in green fields strewn with wildflowers and nary a flake of snow is seen. What is seen are several sumptuous gowns by designer Barbara Baum and a handful of engaging performances.

Both servile and wise, Ian Richardson as one of Catherine’s advisers is in a thesping class by himself, elevating every exchange to a much higher and always entertaining plane. Imperious Moreau — whose theatrical cough signals that she’s not long for this world — clearly has fun limning the ailing empress, who makes underlings squirm as they endeavor to explain why her son can’t achieve an erection.

To its credit, miniseries avoids the incongruous mix of unlikely accents that sinks so many European co-productions. The accents are fine; it’s the dialogue that fails to ignite a single spark. The only memorable lines are drawn from the pithy musings of Virgil, Diderot and Rousseau — with one exception, spoken with charming irony by Zeta Jones stationed before the royal wardrobe:”My dear, I am about to seize the throne of Russia. What on earth shall I wear?”

Bare-bum sex scenes on bearskin rugs by roaring fires are scattered throughout part one. When, in part two, Catherine meets her true love, Potemkin, the sex is kept to an expository minimum.

Lensing has a claustrophobic feel that rarely conveys the scale of pageantry one might wish. When it’s not simply derivative, the music is overbearing and sappy.

Catherine the Great

(GERMAN-U.S.)

Production: A Solomon Intl. Enterprises release of a UFA/Patrola co-production. (Foreign sales: Solomon Intl. Enterprises.) Produced by Wolf Bauer (UFA Filmproduktion), Konstantin Thoeren (Patrola Film), Marvin J. Chomsky; co-executive producers, Bauer, Thoeren, Fred Sidewater; director, Marvin J. Chomsky; writer, John Goldsmith.

Crew: Camera (color), Elemer Ragalyi; editor, Petra Von Oelffen; music, Laurence Rosenthal; production design, Werner Achmann, Sarah Horton; set decoration, Bernard Heinrich; costume design, Barbara Baum; sound (Dolby), William R. Teague; special effects supervisor, Karl Baumgartner; associate producer, Carla Thoeren; assistant director, Dusty Symonds; casting, Lucy Boulting (U.K.), Sabine Schroth (Germany). Reviewed at Monte Carlo Intl. Television Festival, Principality of Monaco, Feb. 11 and 12, 1995. Part one: 88 MIN.; part two: 90 MIN.

With: Cast: Catherine Zeta Jones, Paul McGann, Ian Richardson, Mel Ferrer, Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif, Hannes Jaenicke, Craig McLachlan, Brian Blessed, Agnes Soral, Veronica Ferres, John Rhys-Davies, Mark McGann, Stephen McGann, Horst Frank.

More Film

  • Luca Guadagnino

    Luca Guadagnino on 'Call Me By Your Name' Sequel, His Childhood, Cinema Philosophy

    At the Marrakech Film Festival to give a masterclass, Italian master Luca Guadagnino spoke about the way he envisioned the sequel to “Call Me By Your Name,” as well as shared memories about his childhood and his vision of filmmaking. Guadagnino said that while the script of “Call Me By Your Name” is “strongly faithful” [...]

  • 700700 + Ted Turner Dedication. December

    Ted Turner Tributes Established With WarnerMedia Gift to University of Georgia

    WarnerMedia has established a scholarship, internship program and exhibition hall at the University of Georgia to be named after maverick media mogul Ted Turner. The company has gifted $550,000 to the university to create the Ted Turner Scholarship Fund, for students attending the school’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, which is also the [...]

  • Golden Globes nominations predictions

    Golden Globes 2020 Predictions: What Movies and TV Shows Might Nab Nominations?

    Awards season kicks into higher gear on Monday, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announces nominations for its 2020 Golden Globe Awards, which cover the 2019 calendar year. Noms will give certain films momentum heading into the Oscar race, while it’s the first opportunity for many TV series to earn awards acclaim before competing for [...]

  • Peter Sarsgaard The Batman

    Peter Sarsgaard Joins Robert Pattinson in 'The Batman'

    Peter Sarsgaard is joining Robert Pattinson in Warner Bros.’ “The Batman” in an undisclosed role. “The Batman” director Matt Reeves tweeted the news on Friday, sharing a gif of Sarsgaard accompanied by a bat emoji. Pattinson is starring as Batman/Bruce Wayne. The movie also stars Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, Paul Dano as the Riddler, Colin [...]

  • Worst movies 2019

    The Worst Films of 2019

    Keep in mind that we haven’t seen “Cats.” Or a single one of the half-dozen Nicolas Cage movies released “on demand” (to zero demand?) this past year. Still, in the ongoing quest to find the next masterpiece, film critics inevitably have to sit through a lot more turkeys than your typical moviegoer. Rather than let [...]

  • FAMILIAR FACE -- In Walt Disney

    'Frozen 2' Still Sizzling With $37 Million in Third Weekend; 'Playmobil' Crashing

    “Frozen 2” is gradually warming up the North American box office, with an estimated $37 million its third weekend at 4,348 sites, early estimates showed Friday. Disney’s animated sequel is projected to decline about 57%. Should estimates hold, “Frozen 2” should finish the weekend with nearly $340 million domestically in it first 17 days. With [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content