Catherine the Great review: Helen Mirren is fabulous in this sumptuous, spicy portrait of an empress

Playing approximately 4,000 queens in her career has given Mirren a bit of practice in the role

Ed Cumming
Friday 04 October 2019 08:48
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Helen Mirren stars in HBO's Catherine the Great - trailer

At last, an answer to the question, what could be more fabulous than Helen Mirren playing The Queen? Helen Mirren playing an empress, altogether madder, badder and more dangerous to shag. Better costumes, too.

Catherine the Great, empress of Russia between 1762 and 1796, must have been lurking in the crosshairs of TV producers for years, and now HBO have given it the bells and whistles treatment. She is a dream of a subject: ruthless, compassionate, brilliant, vulnerable, and troubled, who ruled the largest country on Earth for 30 years while maintaining a genuinely spicy private life.

In pre-publicity interviews Mirren has had to explain that despite what the naysayers might think, her character did not, in fact, die having sex with a horse, which I don’t remember coming up when the Dame was doing the rounds with Stephen Frears.

There’s a lot to pack in. As the first episode opens, Catherine visits “prisoner number one” in his cell. This is Ivan VI, one of several thousand pretenders to the throne, who has been driven mad by years of confinement. His claim is only one of her long list of headaches.

The Turks are preparing for war, but the real problems are at court. A strapping young officer, Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), is on the make, and has caught the eye of the empress and her friend the Countess Bruce (Gina McKee). The older men, especially former favourite Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), are suspicious. Catherine’s advisor Panin (Rory Kinnear) seems to have her best interests at heart, but while he admires her, truthfully he thinks her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn), ought to be on the throne. Juggling all this while advocating reform for the serfs: it’s a wonder she has time for romance.

It looks sumptuous. There are endless palaces and balls and luminous outfits, reds and greens and gold. Who knew 18th century Russia had such good dry cleaners? Given the scale, Mirren has to play her character louder than she might otherwise, but she still has a deft way of mixing humanity in with all the grandeur. I suppose playing 4,000 queens in her career has given her a bit of practice.

It helps to have Clarke, Roxburgh and Kinnear, three of the best going, around her, broad-shouldered men in this women’s world. If the dialogue is occasionally over-expository, that’s understandable, and on the whole the starry team makes cantering over all this historical turf look surprisingly intimate.

Catherine’s not quite great, yet, but she’s very good.

Catherine the Great is now available in full on Sky on Demand and NOW TV

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