For some, “Dame Helen Mirren playing the Catherine the Great” is all the convincing they’ll need to watch this new biographical limited series, which is perfectly understandable. The casting of Mirren in the role, which follows the Russian empress in the embattled latter years of her life, is a smart choice that proves its worth every time she’s onscreen. As a Catherine clinging to power after a bitter coup with white knuckles and an eye for devoted men, Mirren renders an almost mythic figure with grounded determination, gravitas, and occasionally petty instincts. With Mirren, who is also an executive producer, you know you’re in the hands of a pro — even when the show she’s anchoring lets her down.
Make no mistake: HBO and Sky’s “Catherine the Great,” from “Elizabeth I” writer Nigel Williams, is a handsome and competent production that luxuriates in every regal Russian set it gets (albeit with an occasionally distracting green screen for more elaborate outdoor scenes). Mirren is as good as aforementioned, and Gina McKee especially pops as the Countess Praskovya Bruce, Catherine’s wry confidante with no shortage of tricks up her sleeve. Plus, unlike many more expansive biopics, the series makes the sharp choice to home in on a relatively small slice of its subject’s life in order to devote more time to its intricacies. It must have been tempting, for example, to portray the bloody coup that got Catherine the throne, deposed husband and all. Instead, “Catherine the Great” drops in well after Catherine has secured her reign to explore the tense days of her fighting to maintain control.
And yet: stepping back from the series’ four episodes reveals a disappointing lack of ambition in portraying such a titanic force’s final days. For as fascinating as Catherine and her life at court was, “Catherine the Great” largely chooses to sidestep the ins and outs of her atypically liberal politics and the wars fought in her name to focus on her romance with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a charismatic and restless soldier.
Her dynamic with Potemkin is interesting at first, especially as she tries to toy with his emotions while he reluctantly hangs suspended between Catherine and Praskovya. But despite Clarke and Mirren’s commitment to selling every tortured glance and impassioned outcry between them, neither Williams’ scripts nor Philip Martin’s directing manage to sell the depth of their apparent love for each other. As it turns out, having several other characters insist that the two must really love each other isn’t quite as convincing as they perhaps think — and then there’s the unfortunate truth that Mirren and Clarke simply don’t have chemistry as palpable as that between Clarke and McKay, whose few mischievous scenes together are more memorable than the many of Catherine and Potemkin circling each other.
Meanwhile, tantalizing morsels of history nip around the edges of the story, only to get batted away by Catherine’s longing for Potemkin to return home. Not even a Crimean takeover or Catherine’s aborted quest to end slavery — fascinating chapters of her life that fed into so much controversy and anger towards the end of her reign — can overshadow her self-professed “obsession” with love, apparently. It’s not that exploring the way Catherine lived and loved couldn’t be interesting. It’s that this particular series, with limited time, bets big on the idea that Catherine and Potemkin’s relationship is enough, and the way it tells that story simply isn’t.
But again: for those wanting to see Mirren sweep through the majestic halls of a Russian palace, imperious and amorous and uncompromising, “Catherine the Great” will deliver the goods. There are worse things than tuning in for that alone, but then again, there are certainly better.
“Catherine the Great” premieres Monday, October 21 at 10 pm on HBO.