Helen Mirren is an extraordinary actor. This is a fact as indisputable as the rising of the sun, the receding of the tides or the notion that borscht is actually best served cold rather than piping hot. We tend to take this basic truth for granted. So, unfortunately, do producers and directors. Which is why you end up with projects like Catherine the Great, a miniseries about the rise of the female monarch who helped build Russia an empire. A joint effort between Britain’s Sky Atlantic and HBO (it’s already aired in the U.K.; the first episode premieres on the premium-cable channel this evening), this four-part epic is the kind of small-screen spectacle full of love, war and constricting gowns galore that normally makes for great event-TV. What you get instead is an Oscar-winning performer standing astride a load of cured ham covered in Russian dressing, which is a great description for a sandwich but not so much for a prestigious retelling of a historical reign. You can feel that director Philip Martin and screenwriter Nigel Williams are relying on the mighty Dame Helen to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting here. You can also sense when, despite her best efforts, that particular plan of action still falls short.
Far be it from us, of course, to deny folks the pleasure of watching Mirren play the country’s longest ruling female leader as a cross between a tzarina gone wild and Cruella de Vil; a few emotionally devastating moments notwithstanding (see: a four-line eulogy for a child that she imbues with a Shakespearean gravitas), her performance is best viewed as something pitched at a level of high camp. “There are a lot of unscrupulous people in Russia,” Catherine says, staring down numerous political rivals like a viper. “Fortunately, I am one of them.” Having taken the crown after a military coup and her husband Peter III’s death under “mysterious circumstances,” she’s fairly new to the power game. But Catherine can deliver royal barbs with the best of them (“Maybe he can nibble on [a proclamation] with his tea — he was always good at eating his words“). Plus, per the miniseries, she was also a cougar who’s single and super-ready to mingle. The man who catches her eye is Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a handsome military officer. Catherine’s best friend, the Countess Praskovya Bruce (Gina McKee), ends up bedding him first. The empress strikes back by taking up with a number of pretty young boytoys. That does not stop the regent or the regiment commander from pining for each other throughout several wars, years of court intrigue and the occasional passive-aggressive public handjob.
Yes, it’s that kind of miniseries — the type that has people in fancy ushankas and powdered wigs saying things like “his unstoppable desire to suck the German cock” and vowing to integrate Crimea into Russia because “I’m all for telling the Germans and the French and the English to fuck off.” Take that, Masterpiece Theater! (At least there are no attempts at get-moose-and-squirrel accents.) If you’ve ever wanted to see Clarke running around naked and waving a saber at someone — not a euphemism, folks — this is definitely the appointment TV for you. Should you want to see a portrait of a great romance set against the backdrop of a nation in turmoil, however, you may find yourself getting restless. There is such a curious lack of chemistry between Clarke and Mirren that the majority of their scenes together fall frustratingly flat; compared to the palpable heat that he and McKee display, or the sexual frisson of the ruler and her main advisor-with-benefits, the “passion” between the two leads suggests they’ve just stepped out of respective cold showers. It’s a problem when your miniseries is centered around a torrid love affair set among affairs of state and the lust gets lost in translation.
Better instead to focus on either the little things that make Catherine the Great throw off sparks (the way Mirren throws earth-scorching shade, Clarke’s petulant glowering, the A-plus slowburn of Rory Kinnear’s royal mentor Nikita Ivanovich Panin) or concentrate on the visual panache/production design of the bigger set pieces (an opulent come-in-drag ball, a battlefield strewn with corpses, sailing fleets and soldier-led massacres set against blinding golden sunsets). It’s those elements that make you momentarily forget that this four-hour period drama can’t hold a candle to HBO’s John Adams, still the network standard-bearer for pre-20th century historical recreations, and is neither the kind of sweeping, aristocratic love story it should be nor the revisionist feminist parable it would like to think it is. There are enough scattered jewels thrown into this mess to keep this from being a complete time-waster, and just a slightly pulpy wasted opportunity. As a figurehead who built Russia into a global force to be reckoned with, Catherine was indeed great. This take on her life and loves and accomplishments? It’s only barely good enough.