In addition to the respect given as actor, sexagenarian Helen Mirren enjoys the glow of being the grandest of Dames, thinking herself not only a fashion icon but, exuberant with assurance, a sexpot. These pluses, with some reservations, certify she’s ready and relishes the opportunity to play Catherine the Great, the last woman to rule Russia. Having wanted to follow up the successful 2005 Elizabeth I with another historical sweep, she and HBO set their sights on filming the story of the 18th Century empress’s numerous sexual affairs and the all-consuming love for and political machinations engaged with Jason Clarke’s Grigory Potemkin. Getting a prominent executive producer credit not received for Elizabeth I, she commands considerable sway over the project; no exaggeration, we feel her overseer presence beyond acting and accoutrements—there’s something gamy as well as uncanny at the heart of this four hour one-woman exhibition, who in real life became the most prolific and engrossing cougar chronologist in history. The freaky lure for viewers is that, at 73, Mirren plays the empress at the start of the series already 35 years older than the real Catherine, and when she dies from stroke at 67, there’s only a six-year difference, yet by observance at least thrice that. Complicating the hurdle is that the real age difference between Catherine the junior and Potemkin is only 10 years; in the series, the two actors are distanced by 24. Permitting exemptions and generosity, Mirren might be deemed to have succeeded by the sheer magnitude of task. Acknowledging other disadvantages—abrasive-looking when the camera closes in on her, the passivity of expression during sex with the younger tricks, some of whom Grigory would personally select—she wouldn’t quite impress without the presence of Clarke balancing with Grigory’s misfit magnetism. The reality of her “hot stuff” demeanor sticky, she adopts a Martha-like jocularity with a butch George that’s used in place of unconvincing sex—the empress and the educated ruffian general parade their infamous quarrels as love bouts. This compromise works, until it doesn’t.

Building a lot of her reputation on royalty, Mirren currently has few peers in establishing credence for haughty imperialism—she seems to have been born to later blossom as powered-up bitches. She could just as easily play Russia’s Elizabeth, whose life and reign as empress parallel Catherine’s. Separated from The Crown’s first two Elizabeths, who “know” their standings are constitutional grants for figurehead unity, Mirren in The Queen doesn’t have any more authority, either—in fact, her Elizabeth II is perilously close to being toppled by her subjects’ emotional outpouring over Diana’s demise—yet she “acts out” as if she has undoubted agency to claim that (very little) grieving for her son’s former wife is a private matter, evolving into a “the whole world is watching” humility. As Catherine, and ditto as Elizabeth I, she dares insurrection, virtually inviting being toppled at any turn by male enemies galore—there were at least a dozen attempts—and survives by tenacious will. (Born a German, she tutored herself in the Russian language; being tone-deaf, she understood the essentiality of rehearsed delivery of adamantly expressed linguistic communication as shield.) And this empress flaunts what Elizabeth I was most afraid of—sex. Both players in the art of flattery, Catherine wanted and got plenty of bed chamber action while England’s grand mam dodged the deed, allegedly related to vaginal deformity, though the repercussions of her mother’s fate by the axe and the court’s prolonged concern for an heir far larger impediments. Mirren’s personal joy of sex and Catherine’s don’t mesh physically, as it becomes manifest the actor is guarding herself from the unease of scoff, which is her right, and though we’re glad she doesn’t chance the explicit, the knottiness remaining is wanting to believe she’s quite the panting empress yet there’s scarcely a credible minute that she is. (We understand why the studs can’t keep theirs up—heroic efforts that the real empress consoled with payouts at their exits, reportedly costing a total of twice Russia’s annual monetary intake.) In the delicate dance around Mirren’s ego and to suspend audience disbelief some techniques of de-ageing need utilization—for example, the instant face lift of tape. And more regard to how close the camera gets to her nose, needing attention as it often looks Pinocchio-like and stealing scenes at inopportune moments.

Contrary to many other presentations purporting to be based on historic record, this Catherine the Great is among the more accurate. Scripter Nigel Williams, who also wrote Elizabeth I, easily blows away previous versions: the curios that are Marlene Dietrich’s 1934 The Scarlet Empress, Tallulah Bankhead’s 1945 comedy A Royal Scandal and Gertrude Lawrence’s 1948 Great Catherine; Julia Ormond’s 1991 Young Catherine; and the 1995 Catherine the Great with Catherine Zeta-Jones and, reeking in ugly smoker’s teeth, Jeanne Moreau as Elizabeth. (There’s also Russia’s 2014 Ekaterina and the 2015 Catherine the Great, though unseen yet as they have not been made widely available.) Concentrating on the Potemkin period of her nearly three and a half decade rule, Williams furnishes Mirren with facts, factoid instances and juicy tidbits that are brandished as a warrior aware of the risk of demonstrating leadership and vision that will be fought at every step, thus the full cognizance of potential coup and its ramifications—a constant worry as aftermath of her coup against ignorant husband Peter III, dethroned a mere six months into his sitting—and therefore the regularity of practiced display of preemptively belittling suspected usurpers, including despised son Paul who will succeed her only to fall five years into his incompetent rule. Never mentioning Elizabeth I, this Catherine has surely read the histories of the English queen’s 45 years and, as witness during Russia’s Elizabeth’s two decades of power, adroitly weaved to wed the heir she hated from the start.

As persistent danger to the court’s powder puffs out to remove or tame Catherine, Clarke’s Potemkin is at the beginning a bit repugnant—to our modern eye he’s the antithesis of handsome. He’s unfeigned to the general’s uncouthness, military barbarism, political perceptiveness, his savvy negotiating skills and demonstrable vainglory as well as probable bipolarity. He hasn’t any qualms about being chased as a sexual dynamo—the number of conquests include nieces (rewarded with Ladies-in-Waiting status) and countless whores. Prowess the mark of malehood, he’s also a self-appointed arbiter in assigning Catherine some romp mates, about whom he vacillates between approval and jealousy. So too the empress, making them a rousing power couple and only fools assume it to be a mismatch. Conveyed is that Potemkin isn’t as power-hungry as Catherine and her court fear from his outbursts of manic behavior; his basic design in helping expand the Russian empire is that, beyond satisfying himself in accomplishment—gaining the Crimea without firing a shot, building quickly a naval force to control the Baltic—he is doing the bidding for country and primarily for the woman he loves, for which she alternately bestows him riches and sharpened rebukes that she owns him. Factually depicted, Potemkin’s death in 1791 from “fever” (or bronchial pneumonia) occurred on a steppe near Jassy, Moldavia while tending to perpetual state matters of war and peace. Maintaining a one-sided “obsession of monogamous” lovers till her death five years later, Catherine’s grief from having lost her greatest love and only avowed ally, on top of the stress of being ousted, are presumed catalysts to increasingly severe headaches she apparently ignored as signs of stroke. In contrast, aware of medical science and preventive care, she was one of the first to subscribe to vaccines and had all her lovers checked out for signs of disease.  

Director Philip Martin isn’t as tidy in Catherine the Great as he is in the seven episodes he helmed in The Crown, or as proficient as he is in Mirren’s 2006 Prime Suspect: The Final Act. This has to be due in part to the casual pace of Peter Morgan’s facile precision in scripts for The Crown, in part due to the demand of brevity vs the voluminous history Catherine left, and in part to budget concerns. Truth is, four episodes simply aren’t enough time to do her justice: when Mirren starts reproach mode, telling the court and the viewers she’ll vanquish the backstabbers, truncation of important events sets in as cue to switch to her next lay, hence the tiresome return to the unwelcomed reminder of the actor’s age. (Russia understands scope: Ekaterina has 39 chapters.) Williams’s own weaknesses are exposed by Martin’s speed to avoid what’s confusing in the only major female supporting character—Gina McKee’s Countess Praskovya Bruce, the wife of the governor of St. Petersburg and Catherine’s most trusted Lady-in-Waiting. Assumed l'éprouveuser of potential cocksmanship for Catherine, including Potemkin, the annals of gossip speculate Praskovya was dismissed and briefly exiled when Potemkin allegedly plotted to have her caught in flagrante with Catherine’s latest lover. This setup isn’t part of the teleplay, nor the gossip that he never liked Praskovya, quite the opposite of what we see in their relationship, which has both in breach of loyalty protocol for fornicating after he starts up with Catherine. Merrin’s empress does mildly dismiss Praskovya’s presence when overhearing her express concern of treachery for the current servicer of the bed chamber Ivan Nikolajevich Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet in one of several personal memoirs that is dedicated to her dearest chum, Catherine admits to discharging her for having had sex with him. In the fourth episode of the series, there’s one last scene between the two women that starts off with the empress’s “What are you doing here?” as vague reference to the dismissal and then moves into chats as remembrances of Potemkin and about the newly imposed ban on French books (including Voltaire, with whom Catherine had exchanged friendly letters years before), the proscription ostensibly over the French printing trashy speculation that she’s a fornicating murderess but more likely due to both the American and French revolutions as ominous foreshadowing of royal governance. No specific mention of Praskovya being exiled from court, nor that after leaving she traveled abroad and then lived in Moscow, nor any mention of being granted the return in 1785 to St. Petersburg to be with her dying husband. Already suffering from an undisclosed life-threatening illness, she met with Catherine at St. Petersburg the same year. Received at length and with affection, the empress would say goodbye to Praskovya, who would die the following April. This delayed reconciliation is sorely missed to balance the empress’s pettiness and Mirren’s front & center id. Altho McKee provides the palsy-walsy prattle about sex as their favorite pastime, it’s never clear whether we’re supposed to like her.

Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great were filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania, with the latter also filmed at the Rundale Palace near Pilsrundale, Latvia and in St. Petersburg. The former used an abandoned sports stadium to house most of its sets under the production design of Eva Stewart and Leon McCarthy’s art direction, concentrating on the continuity of claustrophobia, suitable for London’s squeezed & diseased metropolis. In much of Catherine the Great we can breathe, not just from the inside expanses of the Peterhof, Gatchina and Yusupov Palaces in or near St. Petersburg but also inhale the refreshing cool to cold air from outside and most specifically from Rundale. Various interiors—corridors, the opulent halls & displays of baroque iconolatry, Catherine’s royal apartment and its deluxe private entrance—are real locales and shot by Stuart Howell (another seven-episode alum of The Crown), who catches an unusually luxurious, shimmering glow of lighting by candle. Maja Meschede’s costumes for Mirren are without the aggrandizement of royal hoop skirt portraiture; they’re reduced, rather like McKee’s bum rolls in Phantom Thread, and elegantly contoured to accentuate presence over height, though that is offered up when, in masculine drag, Catherine is indeed rendered as shorter than most people realize and about which becomes the unavoidable default theme of the 2016-2019 PBS Masterpiece series Victoria.

In retaliation for years of Catherine’s constant scorn and expressed intent he not succeed her, son Paul pushed for and got the sexist change in law about succession—that no woman would ever again preside over Russia. (He’d also try but fail to blot out his mother’s and Potemkin’s achievements.) Though Catherine unaccountably willed her writings to him, along with the royal decree that they not be published until 50 years after her death, he decided, before locking them away in secret archives, to give permission to make one backup copy, but five years into ascendancy he was killed in a coup instigated by his son Alexander I who would grant four additional copies to be made. By then the existence of the memoirs, confabulated without knowing their contents, weren’t much of a secret. Not until czar Nicholas expired did an incomplete copy of Catherine’s writings find its way to Alexander Herzen, a Russian revolutionary-writer in London who used his periodical The Bell to publish it in 1859, sixty-three years after her death, resulting in enormous international interest. But Catherine already had a well-established reputation as a highly opinionated, witty and brutally honest writer, having penned editorials on politics and international affairs and articles on social and cultural issues eagerly published in periodicals throughout Russia and Europe. She also authored operas and comedies, some of them performed at the Hermitage Theatre. Her personally written histories of her time before and during her dominance are considered to be so accurately detailed as to be practically unchallengeable, with the exception of who fathered her children. A copious correspondent to much of the renowned in Europe, she held in high esteem Voltaire, a champion of the Age of Enlightenment, whose advice she solicited and whose lacerating style made her laugh. Before dying in 1778, and before Catherine banned French publications, he admired that she dared to advocate the popular movement’s tenets, which are addressed in the beginning of the series. Then they vanish in brief dialogue regrets that she couldn’t curtail the abuses of Serfdom or repeal slavery, and vaporizing too is her positive influence to broaden science, medicine and the arts. Reluctantly accepting the hindrances in Catherine the Great—the age differences, the sex as unintendedly skeptical hobbyhorse, the budgetary and episode circumscription—we resign to Mirren’s insistent gambit as a sexpot in need of genuine love as substitutive essence of Voltaire’s thumbnail of the empress as “enlightened despot.” (11/12/2021)


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Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2021 All Rights Reserved.