Tag Archives: historical fiction

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. 

The Aftermath: BOOK vs FILM Review

It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.

The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm, was the wife of non-Nazi architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).

Top British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

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If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.

The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.

(Personally, I find Clarke a far more attractive option.)

Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to nothing.

The cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and things are picturesque enough to hit Google with “houses on the river Elbe”.

🍔🍔 1/2

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

20190323_104422-02.jpegWe first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.

Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda.

Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’

Freda notes how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both want a better world, where people talk about what matters.

It’s a slow burn, two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.

Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, even he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.

With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.

The Aftermath has a compelling premise, and its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense make a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2