The Great season three review: History at its most horrible – and enjoyable

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are back as Russia’s most dysfunctional couple in this brilliant, raucous period drama

Nick Hilton
Thursday 13 July 2023 13:32 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The period drama is a beautiful thing. Quite literally: beautiful houses, beautiful costumes, beautiful people. It is a stately, sedate staple of British television, from Brideshead Revisited to Pride and Prejudice. On the surface, The Great on Lionsgate+ has all these things. Vast Russian estates, dresses that could be hung in the Hermitage, and a cast who could all model in perfume adverts. In short, the perfect period drama. But The Great isn’t interested in perfection; it’s interested in iconoclasm. Returning now for its third season, this is period drama with an injection of rock’n’roll.

Russia’s most dysfunctional couple are back, and they both have fairly legitimate grievances against the other. Catherine (Elle Fanning) is still reeling from the discovery that Peter (Nicholas Hoult) shagged her mother (and killed her in the process). Peter, meanwhile, has his guard up after Catherine inadvertently butchers his double, Pugachev (also Hoult), in revenge. “We’ve had some difficulties,” Catherine tells her couples’ confessor. “Apparently marriage has challenges,” Peter adds in understatement.

After the toing and froing for control in the first seasons of The Great, the balance of power seems to have settled: Catherine the iron-fisted administrator of the Russian realm, and Peter the amoral playboy at her side. For them, the stakes are life and death, but for the advisors around them there’s still room for political manoeuvring. Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) is on the out, while the stars of Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) and Archie (Adam Godley) are rising. This is a more pragmatic, less ideological, era of the revolution. “I will happily watch you gun down the disloyal friends who I love,” Georgina (Charity Wakefield) proclaims grimly. “This is all getting very disturbing,” Marial (Phoebe Fox) adds, succinctly.

Those familiar with The Great will need no introduction to its tone or style but, for the uninitiated, it is an intoxicating combination of the rambunctious absurdity of sketch comedy and the lavish historicism of great period drama. Australian writer-creator Tony McNamara (who also co-wrote The Favourite, if you are in need of further confirmation of timbre) has enormous fun with the court machinations and the characters who people them. Particularly delicious is Hoult’s Peter, who maintains his abominable, and intransigent, charisma (the performance must be modelled on a young Hugh Grant, Hoult’s About a Boy co-star). “I once killed three men and ate a whole reindeer stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a pomegranate,” he blithely announces over dinner. “F***ing amazing.”

The Great has always been typified by an ahistorical, anachronistic interpretation of the reign of a woman who loomed over Russia for more than three decades. That naturally engenders the question of whether this relentless stylism is sustainable, especially as the years pass and Fanning continues to look like the Catherine of the 1740s (and no later). McNamara handles this by introducing a sitcom quality to proceedings, with B-plots involving duels to the death between 11-year-old boys and horses who will not copulate and produce a “European superhorse”. It is, of course, by its own proclamation an “occasionally true story”, in much the same way that Fargo was “a true story”. For all concerned, this is a liberation – though events do, at times, feel like they are heading towards a narrative cul de sac.

If it does run out of momentum before Catherine can reach old age and infirmity (and the horse sex rumours), then it will have been quite the ride to get there. Fanning, Hoult and company have led a raucously entertaining ensemble through three seasons of a show that’s been largely hidden from UK viewers on the obscure Lionsgate+ platform. The third instalment in the saga of The Great is history at its most horrible – and most enjoyable. As Peter himself might say after a large plate of pheasant in grape sauce: huzzah!

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