Screen queens: How new comedy drama The Great feeds our appetite for royal biopics

Elle Fanning is resplendent as Catherine the Great in Hulu's big-budget show. But what keeps us coming back for more queens? We relate to their conflicts, self-doubt and messy relationships, says Charlotte Cripps

Tuesday 02 June 2020 00:17
Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in Hulu's 'The Great'
Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in Hulu's 'The Great'

A luminous Elle Fanning is all fake smiles and “pretend, pretend, pretend” as Catherine the Great in Hulu’s comic period drama The Great. She’s already had a suicide attempt over her loveless marriage to the brutish emperor Peter III of Russia, played by Nicholas Hoult, who would have bumped her off in a carriage “accident” if she had continued to be a “miserable, scowling c***”. He tells her that “women are for seeding, not reading” and presents her with an infertile lover called Leo (Sebastian De Souza) because “our f***ing is as dull as a beaver chomping at a log”. He smashes drinking glasses against the wall, punches her in the stomach, and shoots dead her pet bear – all with a triumphant “Huzzah!”

This big-budget and visually majestic 10-hour series premiered in the US last week to rave reviews and arrives in the UK on StarzPlay on 18 June. It’ll also air on Channel 4 later this year. Yet another regal show to binge-watch, it arrives just six months after HBO’s take on the Russian empress – the Helen Mirren-starring Catherine the Great.

From Netflix’s The Crown to ITV’s Victoria, viewers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for queens on screen. Getting stuck into another royal biopic is an escape. What’s life like in a gilded cage? Fanning’s Catherine – who we first spot on a swing evoking Fragonard’s famous painting – is about to find out as she’s shipped off to Russia.

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