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Catherine The Great (Helen Mirren) - First episode review

Catherine The Great

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

HELEN Mirren is no stranger to playing royalty, having previously done so to Oscar-winning effect in The Queen. She now turns her attention to another monarch, Russia’s Catherine The Great, for HBO.

The results, thus far, are intriguing. Being a HBO production, the look of the series is epic. And there’s already plenty of deceit and sex.

But with so much to cram in, there’s a superficial quality to proceedings too. We’re running to catch up, especially as the series opens mid-reign. Or, as an opening caption states: “Catherine’s turbulent reign began in 1762 with a military coup. She seized power from her husband, Emperor Peter III, who died soon after – in mysterious circumstances. Surrounded by enemies and fighting off rival challenges to her throne, Catherine’s rule is far from secure.”

This sets the scene. For we first meet Catherine as she visits ‘prisoner number one’, aka Ivan VI, one of several pretenders to the throne. She immediately becomes wary of the claim, as well as the persistent meddling of one of Ivan’s guards.

But she also has other troubles to contend with. There’s the threat of imminent war with the Turks, another potential usurper in the form of former favourite Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), and even uncertainty surrounding her apparently loyal advisor Panin (Rory Kinnear), who also believes that her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn), should be on the throne.

There’s sexual distraction, too, in the form of fiery young officer Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), who has already seduced her friend, the Countess Bruce (Gina McKee), and who could be making his own play for the throne. But Catherine finds his charms irresistible.

And so, Catherine The Great juggles all of these characters, and all of their desires, in quietly simmering fashion, culminating with the putting down of one potential threat (via violent execution).

Yet while highly watchable, the first episode hasn’t gripped us entirely. Mirren, for whom the series is a labour of love, shines. But with so much going on around her, we haven’t been able to get the measure of the woman she is playing.

Is she genuinely liberal minded? Or is there someone more deceitful, more cunning and more ruthless lurking underneath? Mirren teases us with possibility, offering glimpses of both. She’s a fiercely independent woman, mindful of the minefield she is walking. But the stakes don’t feel that personal so far; more episodic.

She is great, as are Clarke, Roxburgh and Kinnear – the latter trio scheming and manipulative in their own right. There’s much to play with and bags of potential. The principal players have worked hard to offer us some grasp of their characters and motivations.

Hopefully, the foundations for a great drama have now been laid. But with just three episodes remaining, there still seems a lot of history to squeeze into a running time that’s as tight as one of Catherine’s bodices.

It should nevertheless be fascinating to find out more about Catherine, while seeing if the series itself can make the transition from good to great.

Catherine The Great airs on Sky Atlantic on Thursday nights from 9pm.

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