Three episodes in... I'm really not responding to this the way I thought I would. I think the actual history of Catherine the Great is much more interesting than this revisionist take.
I agree somewhat, in the sense that the historical inaccuracy and ridiculous shenanigans that transpire can be off putting in a way. But then again, you have to remember that this is the exact tone they were going for all along; mixing the past with just as much as modern social engineering which will always run the risk of being divisive.
What do you think of the performances from Fanning and Hoult so far?
So, I'm in episode 5 - halfway into it - and I'm enjoying. I have some reservations, but I'm digging it. Let me start addressing the elephant in the room: it had large shoes to fit. Massive shoes, actually. Being Tony McNamara's first project after The Favourite got me with very high expectations. On the surface, it checks all the points: revisionist history, sarcastic down to the bone, strong female lead... But:
It lacks a Yorgos Lanthimos, both visually and as a story-telling voice. The Favourite's script is truly magnificent, one of the best things of the decade, but you can't ignore how much of Lanthimos' voice is stamped all over the movie despite not being a writer in it. The way he brings the words into action is in his own fashion: zany, sadistic, dark, cynical. He uses it to highlight the absurds, thus modernizing the story without having to openly inject modern ideas into what the characters are saying.
The Great, in comparison, feels quite... tame in that regard? Up to this point, it hasn't yet embraced the weirdness, playing more like longer episodes of Veep - which is great and has its own merits. The acting is more conventional, which makes some moments of darker humor of the script to lose its bite. And visually, it is beautiful. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and so many shots are so well-framed. But I just don't like how it's lit in that usual awkward TV-style.
And if The Favourite is about period people with modern desires, but living pretty much with the mentality and rules of that time, The Great just has Catherine to be a 21st century woman living in imperial Russia. Which is fine, and it works, but to me it feels like a lacked opportunity to truly explore what made her - even in her early days - such a revolutionary woman. The things she says and she stands for are so current that it sometimes feels off for me. It doesn't help that the political context is such a big part of the plot, so it's stuck in a middle-ground between being a full-blown comedy about a couple of spouses who hate each other and are plotting to stab each other in the back and a show in which you actually have to keep track of what's going on with the war and more grounded elements about russian history (remember how everything unrelated to the love triangle in The Favourite is merely an abstract reference to point where those people stand in the hierarchy?).
And these two points bring me to a third one. It bothers me how nice Catherine is portrayed. So far, she has her share of moments of rage and delusions of grandeur, but ultimately it's been set in stone that she's a moral, decent person - and it's robbing her journey of complexity. She's literally plotting to overthrow her husband's king after just a few weeks of being in Russia for the first time, and it's never questioned of how legitimate or self-oriented that quest of hers is. Ultimately, she's a moral person who truly cares about the well-being of others and etc, and her darker undertones are merely hinted. I'm gonna give 'em a rest 'cause I'm literally still in the middle of her arc and that ruthless side of Catherine is already being hinted at, so there's still time for that.
After this huge negative commentary, I'll contradict myself and repeat that I'm actually liking it a lot. It is frustrating, but I think I settled that it might not be what I hoped, it's its own beast and it works just fine as that. Fanning's turn as Catherine has pathos and is truly funning - think of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blond, but as a russian queen. It's a piece of acting that's both humourous, fresh and also sexy. MVP here is Hoult though, who feels very at home playing a complete asshole, never apologizing for being a truly incompetent and terrible person.
The pacing pleases me, as the episodes feel quite shorter than their 50 minutes-long running time. It's genuinely fun, and it plays like a period version of Veep. I hope my positive feeling over this show weren't completely buried by my apprehensive take I'd rate its first half a 7/10, gonna finish it tomorrow! It's a wild ride, indeed.
So, I am of two minds about this - I'll try to articulate my thoughts as best I can. Please bear in mind that comparisons to The Favourite are inevitable.
First, I think the screenplay definitely needed a Deborah Davis to help balance the perverted humor of Tony McNamara. The sexual crudeness that occasionally peppered The Favourite was shocking and funny there - here, it is just beyond gratuitous. The depraved (often violent) sexuality that is constantly played for laughs throughout 10 episodes just becomes grating. Hoult gives it his all, and I think he's really good, but the writing really clips the performance it could have been - there is just no depth to this character - he never feels genuine or human - it's a bright, shimmery surface, but it's really only that. Hoult does play the one or two notes he's given to perfection, but again... 10 episodes... The jokes wear thin.
Elle Fanning, though, is a tour de force as Catherine - this is her best ever performance, and she absolutely elevates the entire series. Her arc from a naive "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" type to powerful, artful leader is articulated intelligently and poignantly - Fanning walks the tonal tightrope magnificently, somehow humanizing McNamara's humor - she is a funny, cunning, luxuriously-frocked hurricane.
So, yes, the Jane Austen-On-Crack humor is annoying to the point of being grotesque, but Fanning makes the whole thing worth watching.
This tweet pretty much sums up how I feel about The Great.It felt too much like a rip off of The Favourite at first,then it really started to come into its own after a few episodes and became its own entity.I ended up absolutely loving it,and I honestly think these are the best performances that Fanning and Hoult have ever given.