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.
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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.