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HBO REVIEW: Catherine the Great, an epic open romance

In Catherine the Great, HBO and Sky’s new four-parter, nearly everyone talks like they’re starring in The Crown (Jason Clarke does his own thing – more on him later). Luckily the big fur hats let you know you’re in RUSSIA.

With Helen Mirren playing Catherine, the series aims to provide a balanced image, celebrating her as a socially enlightened female ruler in a man’s world, while not shying away from the fact she ruled with an iron fist.

Politics and empire-building are just a backdrop, though. The true heart of the piece is slowly revealed to be the passionate, complicated bond between Catherine and her military leader Potemkin (Clarke), whose existing letters to each other show a loving, open relationship, and an almost modern way of working together.

In the series, Catherine has usurped her husband and their son. Amid tension with her military co-conspirators – including her estranged lover Orlov – she glimpses the swaggering Potemkin. Catherine likes hunky (younger) men, but she’s running a country, so she gets her lady-in-waiting to test his er, political prowess. 

By hour two, we’re two years into the Russo-Turkish war, and Potemkin has been away covering himself in glory, rising through the ranks. Catherine impulsively orders his return, only to ghost him. They try to make one another jealous, before having an awkward chat about their exes.

It’s true Catherine had multiple lovers, and her sexual liberation gave rise to fake news. Even now, urban legends persist – including the notorious slur involving a horse. Despite the recent press hype, Catherine and Potemkin’s onscreen romance is only steamy in the sense that they (eventually) kiss in a bathhouse.

They settle into domestic bliss, but, rather like the ‘action man’ Prince Phillip portrayed by The Crown, a (literally) thrusting Potemkin becomes petulant and bored. He wants to Make Russia Great, annex the Crimea, and shag half the population while doing so.

As Potemkin, Clarke goes from a clean-cut Aussie Don Cossack, to sounding and looking like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Poor Catherine can’t live with him, but she can’t live without him. Mirren pines for him and distracts herself with toy boys – some actually procured by Potemkin, who has the comical nerve to be jealous.

We’re reminded she’s a brilliant woman, and a patron of the arts, but she mostly indulges in sex, paranoia, and bickering with her son and her council. It rather presents a sad case of living long enough to see yourself become the villain, tossing the Voltaire on a bonfire.

Its difficulty is having three decades of history, and only four hours. There needs to be a focus, and the series loses sight of it. Only a pivotal final scene goes a long way to redeeming Catherine the Great as a bittersweet mini-epic about one of history’s greatest love affairs.