Tag Archives: the crown

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. 

BOOK REVIEW: Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown

The Shoebill is a prehistoric-looking bird that exists in the marshes of East Africa. Scientists know that these intensely private creatures rarely raise more than one chick; a second is insurance in case the older one doesn’t make it.

A similar philosophy underlies the royal heir and the spare. The lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, but being a second-born royal can be trickier; modern spares must accept indifference and resentment from the press and public, especially as cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.

Such was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown renewed interest in the glam yet troubled royal, whose star faded long before Diana arrived to swipe her tiara. Luckily for Princess Margaret’s new admirers, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling was published last year to gushing reviews.

Subtitled “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret”, he takes a magpie approach, including letters, palace statements, interviews, and snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen and VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.

Having only Netflix and Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Margaret as a spoiled, party-loving Millennial to go on, I didn’t know just how frosty and demeaning she could be.

The princess loved to party, and nobody could break protocol by leaving before her. She was drawn to celebrities, and the feeling was mutual – she was a princess, after all. Girls copied her clothes, while Picasso was among the many men who wanted to marry her.

But celebs and diarists also swapped horror stories. Of all the jaw-dropping anecdotes, it’s hard to top the time she turned to a disabled guest at a party and asked: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”

Or when she was opening an old folks’ home and was presented with a specially cooked chicken dish. “That looks like sick,” she said.

While her sister was groomed to be queen and meet ambassadors and presidents, birth order discrimination pushed Margaret to the background, destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”

Ma’am Darling gets repetitive with examples of bad behaviour, but Brown throws in some counter-factual flourishes too, such as Queen Margaret delivering a DGAF Christmas speech.

There’s been speculation that Princess Margaret’s life was ruined by the Townsend saga – when she supposedly couldn’t marry her beloved Group Captain without losing her royal status and income. Brown doesn’t seem to buy the fairy tale, and is skeptical of the 16 years older Group Captain.

Princess Margaret eventually married Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. The Snowdons, as they became known, lived a bohemian life, but the marriage was unhappy, with Brown even accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.

Ma’am Darling is a whimsical book. I didn’t find it as hysterically funny as some critics did, and I got exhausted by all the ‘famous’ names from the mid-century arts world and high society. But Brown looks at Princess Margaret from many angles, that you pity her and dislike her at the same time. It feels like her life was never her own. 

👑👑👑 1/2

 

NETFLIX REVIEW: The Crown

Netflix’s new series, The Crown, cost around 100 million dollars to make, which would cover nearly a third of the huge cost of the Buckingham Palace renovations.

It’s got great reviews, too – the series, not the impending renovations – which are proving quite controversial. (And all for a palace that according to this series, nobody wants to live in.)

Now I don’t enjoy cooing over the royals, or cooing over pretend-royals in sumptuous costumes. But I love royal history, and The Crown is well-made and absorbing. It’s an intensely, richly, cinematic imagining of Queen Elizabeth II’s life behind palace doors.

Ten episodes take us from the then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip, right up ’til the brink of the Suez crisis of 1956. In between the historical milestones, the young royal is embroiled in family dramas, and in each chapter she will have to choose between the ones she loves, and duty.

“The fact is,” her grandmother admonishes her, “the crown must win – must always win.”

I wasn’t sure about Claire Foy as our unknowable queen, with her open face and large cornflower blue eyes. (Sarah Gadon in the fanciful A Royal Night Out looked more the part.) But Foy is believable as a simple countrywoman, more concerned with her dogs and horses than politics or people.

Creator/writer Peter Morgan’s series is actually all about the hat, not the person wearing it. “An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” is how her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, describes Elizabeth during his bitchy coronation commentary. Once anointed, she is transformed, he says, into a “goddess”.

Matt Smith layers his rubbery-faced, zany energy over the mannerisms and ‘wit’ of the notoriously prickly Duke of Edinburgh. I kept expecting him to suggest a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne.

In fact, almost everyone seems far nicer than they probably were/are in real life – even Eileen Atkins as scary Queen Mary. Well,  almost everyone. There’s the fabulously brittle duo of Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams (I had to check it wasn’t Game of Thrones’ Red Woman – Carice van Houten) as Wallis Simpson.

The Crown is secure enough in its power that we also spend plenty of time with the politicians. Still really needing a movie to themselves are John Lithgow as Churchill, and Stephen Dillane as the painter Graham Sutherland, hired to produce a portrait of the PM. (It ends up on a bonfire – true story, apparently).

The Crown can be artificial, as things have to be explained to the audience. Underlings tell Her Majesty: “And your father’s real name was Albert, and of course your uncle’s real name was David and your name is Elizabeth…”

It’s a bit like a popular history book come to life, and I suppose we couldn’t have expected anything more controversial in our nostalgia-obsessed times. With six more series to go, I’m waiting for someone to stop fretting over whether the Crown will endure, and instead wonder if it should.