Billing itself with a cheeky asterisk as “an occasionally true story,” Hulu’s “The Great” immediately frees itself of the usual period drama obligation to connect the historical dots. Instead, it goes for more of an accurate vibe than a completely faithful retelling of a notoriously tumultuous time in Russian history: the six months between when a 19 year-old Catherine (executive producer Elle Fanning) married the country’s new emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), and the moment she overthrew him to have the throne to herself.
Created by “The Favourite” co-writer Tony McNamara, “The Great” straddles the line between period drama and slapstick comedy with acrobatic ease. Catherine, Peter, and their various minions spit scathingly funny insults at each other. The punchlines come as swift and lacerating as Peter’s temper (which, as acted by the dexterous Hoult, erupt in bursts more frequently absurd than strategic). The production design and costuming is suitably lush, painting a vision of the Russian court that’s at once indulgent and brutal; for every jaw-dropping feast, there’s a royal tantrum, sudden (and extremely literal) backstabbing, a bag of heads courtesy of some unlucky Swedes. And since this version of Catherine and Peter’s story explicitly doesn’t care about being entirely accurate, its cast of characters is racially diverse in a way that period dramas rarely are; the best actors for the parts got the parts.
The series does have a tendency to aggressively punctuate scenes with sex (an all too common hazard of getting a green light from a streaming network without content restrictions), and its comedic gushes of blood can be more predictable than effectively shocking. Its version of Catherine is so persistently feminist that it wouldn’t be surprising if she handed out pink pussyhats at a royal brunch. But with its sly and hilarious eye for court intrigue, “The Great” becomes a wickedly entertaining piece of historical fudging that lays bare the myopic nature of aristocracy, the root causes of revolt, and the danger inherent in thoughtless leaders surrounded by unquestioning yes-men.
Though Catherine first comes to court with visions of matrimonial harmony and benevolent rule, Peter proves to harbor a nasty combination of petulance, callousness and rage that forces her to grow up, fast. She soon gathers a few allies in Peter’s bookish advisor (Sacha Dawan), her emperor-approved lover (Sebastian De Souza) and her acerbic servant Mariel (Phoebe Fox), still smarting from the indignity of being demoted from nobility thanks to her feckless father. With Peter oblivious to everything except his own awesomeness, and his formidable archbishop disciple (stealth MVP Adam Godley) constantly trying to stay in his good graces, Catherine has some time and room to figure out her own way. The road to victory is more treacherous than she realizes — at first. With every passing episode, the show propels Catherine forward, teaching her hard and valuable lessons that, eventually, will help her become “The Great” she so desperately longs to be.
The cast is uniformly strong, and the series’ brisk and deliberate pacing makes sure to let each central actor show it (and luxuriate in McNamara’s uniquely spiky dialogue, besides). In particular, Hoult — a consistent “Favourite” highlight in a film overflowing with scene-stealers — proves why he’s not-so-secretly one of the funniest actors working today. His Peter is impulsive and cruel, but he’s also childish and small, licking his own wounds before lashing out to ensure that others will feel exactly as bad as he does. Hoult’s so good at revealing the human beneath the aspiring tyrant, in fact, that Peter’s total lack of guile can be downright charming — until the next time he feels slighted, at which point he’ll no doubt provide a visceral reminder of why Catherine is plotting to bring him down.
Because for as good as the cast and production is, the series’ backbone is Fanning’s increasingly confident empress. As she learns to hold her own, Catherine has to also learn how to navigate her new husband’s vicious whims and gain enough of a foothold in court to implement a more socially progressive agenda without losing her head (both metaphorically and literally, as applies to many things in “The Great”). It’s a tougher part than first meets the eye: Catherine’s neither completely naive nor entirely savvy, and her obvious book smarts have trouble translating into social deftness. Much to her new allies’ chagrin, she’s also a teenager stubbornly butting up against adulthood without always understanding what it entails. But as Catherine willfully transforms herself into an actual leader, it’s clear that Fanning is nothing short of remarkable in the role. With every quick arch of her eyebrow and clipped delivery of a deceptively cutting line, Fanning traces Catherine the Great’s ascension to power — but moreso, and more impressively, her evolution into a woman all her own.
“The Great” premieres May 15 on Hulu. 60 mins. (10 episodes; all reviewed.)