A great cast and script make The Great more than just The Favourite in Russia.
Based on the fact that The Great:
A. Was created by the screenwriter of The Favourite.
B. Shares a main star, playing a similar role as he played in The Favourite, and
C. Hulu cut the trailer to look exactly like the Favourite…
I justifiably thought The Great would be a pretty obvious clone of that movie. While it shares a ton of DNA, The Great also manages to carve out its own identity and style. If you can believe it, it manages to be darker and weirder in places. Yup. Darker and weirder than a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. Huzzah!
The Great (2020)
Future empress Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) arrives at the Russian court of Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) for an arranged marriage. Russia is in the middle of a disastrous war with Sweden and the palace is in chaos as the vainglorious Peter III ignores all of advisors. Catherine quickly finds herself in the maelstrom of competing factions, some of whom would prefer the enlightened young empress in charge.
Episode 1: The Great.
Catherine, heir to a lesser noble line, heads to Russia to become the wife of the recently elevated Peter III. Filled with lofty enlightenment ideals, she hopes to find a kindred soul in Peter, and to direct Russia to become the very model of a respectable European empire. Then she meets Peter, who is a raging asshole.
The first episode takes a polar opposite tact from The Favourite for set-up: instead of a destitute heroine warily approaching the levers of power for self preservation, we get a rather naive and optimistic lead who quickly learns to smile and curtsy through a minefield of intrigue, violence, and madness.
By the end of the episode we get to pretty much the same place as the The Favourite – a canny protagonist playing a desperate game of thrones with a mercurial sovereign against an older, ruthless woman, surrounded by a feckless aristocracy – but the shift makes The Great feel like a virtuoso variation on a theme instead of just an imitation.
Episode 2: The Beard.
Catherine tries to feel out Peter’s aunt, Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) to see if she is friend or foe. At court, Peter navigates a perceived slight from another aristocrat, with deadly results. Both Peter and Catherine begin to warm to the idea of eliminating each other in earnest.
OK. Two things. I didn’t mention how brutal this show could get. In both episodes, casual violence -especially sexual violence – abounds. The show has a sustained note of dark comedy, but slips in strikingly somber or jarring notes regularly. It’s a bit like a Terry Gilliam film where base, perverse, or crazy elements come out of the ether, always keeping you off guard.
Second, Belinda Bromilow slays as Elizabeth. She has the feckless, cocky nature of Peter, as well as his blithe disregard for atrocity, but also is charming and canny. Bromilow sinks her teeth into the role, indulging each aspect while making it gel into a coherent whole.
Episode 3: You Sir, Are No Peter the Great!
Catherine uncovers a dirty secret digging into Peter’s history: he put down a rival claimant, who disappeared afterwards. She hopes to recruit a new ally by getting Elizabeth to reveal his location. Meanwhile, Peter attempts to disastrously impress the military in order to measure up to his namesake, Peter the Great.
This episode felt the most like The Favourite. The intrigues are really heating up as we have a firmer grasp on the players. Peter’s celebration of the military feels like the gonzo, Marquis de Sade vibe of Lanthimos’ films. For all of that, I enjoy The Great more when it’s playing its own game, so this episode was less memorable.
Binge or Purge?: The Great.
Despite worries that this series would simply strip-mine The Favourite, it does a fantastic job of standing on its own. It’s like when you see a good Tarantino film: it feels stylistically of a piece, but does its own thing story and character-wise. There are some motifs that repeat (low level courtiers made to endure barrages of food, for some reason!) but breaks new ground.
The acting in the series is top notch. While Hoult mostly reprises the best elements of his character from The Favourite, they are the best bits after all. Elle Fanning really threads the needle between being overly idealistic or too amenable to power seeking. The supporting roles are all fantastic.
The series also is surprisingly deep. Each episode feels like an act in a play or almost a mini-movie unto itself. It covers so much ground, weaves in so many elements, yet always feels consistent and whole. Combined with the astute pacing, it makes you want to always plow ahead.