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Dark Comedy 'The Great' Is the Satirical Take on Russian History You Didn't Know You Needed

The acerbically funny period-set series stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult — and it lives up to its name.
By Sarah Ward
May 22, 2020
By Sarah Ward
May 22, 2020

When The Favourite took a chapter of 18th-century history, filtered it through a witty and twisted sense of humour, and brought it all to life with lavish sets, luxurious costuming and a high-profile cast, it instantly attracted attention — and became one of the best films of 2018. Now, The Great is here to roll out the same format on the small screen, this time swapping English royalty for a famed Russian empress. And, sporting savage, satirical humour in spades, it works just as well.

The moniker 'the Great' has popped up plenty of times in Russian history; however there's no doubting who it refers to in this instance: Catherine, formerly Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg of Prussia. As played by Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon, Mary Shelley, Galveston), she hasn't yet ascended to greatness when The Great begins. But, by the time the show's first episode finishes, she's firmly plotting her path.

Sent to Russia to marry reigning emperor Peter III (The Favourite and True History of the Kelly Gang's Nicholas Hoult) and solve her family's money troubles, the educated and idealistic Catherine arrives in her new homeland with a romantic vision of life, her nuptials, her place in the kingdom and her adopted country in general — especially its treatment of women. Alas, instead of marital bliss and being regarded as an equal, she's soon betrothed to a vain, arrogant, brattish ruler who'd rather binge-drink vodka, shoot bears, throw parties and start wars to prove his manliness than spend any real time with his new wife. He's also the kind of guy who describes himself as possessing "a gentle heart and massive cock", then pauses to make sure his ever-present entourage of ass-kissing noblemen furnish him with praise and laughs.

It's no wonder, then, that when Catherine describes her hopes and dreams for a tender and ecstatic wedding night, her caustic but loyal maid Marial (The Aeronauts' Phoebe Fox) only barely manages not to roll her eyes. The reality of the royal couple's first evening together is definitely no one's fantasy, with Peter thrusting away while he chats to his best friend Grigor (Bohemian Rhapsody and Top End Wedding's Gwilym Lee) about shooting ducks.

Created and written by The Favourite's Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning co-scribe Tony McNamara — and based on the Australian playwright, screenwriter and director's 2008 Sydney Theatre Company stage production of the same name — The Great serves up acerbic laughs from the outset, and doesn't let the mood drop. That means sharp, sly and thoroughly self-aware dialogue, an irreverent and cheeky tone, and having ample fun with real-life details. Indeed, The Great's title card notes upfront that the show tells "an occasionally true story". The broad strokes of Catherine's life remain in place, including her progressive plans for Russia and her quest to topple her husband in a coup; however slavish devotion to history is far, far less important than dark comedy, laugh-out-loud lines, a willingness to get silly and viewing Imperial Russia as a farce.

Entertaining, engaging and very easy to binge, The Great also benefits from pitch-perfect casting. In her first comedic role, Fanning is equally luminous, intelligent and calculating, especially when she's scheming her way to the top. But, while the series isn't called Peter III (or "no Peter the Great", as he's dubbed in one episode), Hoult constantly steals the show as the demanding and impetuous frat boy emperor. Also deserving attention: the delightfully sarcastic Fox, Lodge 49's Adam Godley as the manic Archbishop, Hoult's fellow Skins alum Sebastian de Souza as Catherine's approved lover, Iron Fist's Sacha Dhawan as her chief co-conspirator and Australian actress Belinda Bromilow as Peter's offbeat aunt.

Check out the trailer below:

All ten episodes of The Great's first season are available to stream via Stan in Australia and NeonTV in New Zealand.

Top image: Ollie Upton, Hulu

Published on May 22, 2020 by Sarah Ward
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