Hulu’s ‘The Great’ has bombastic bravura

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Whether it’s the bold colors of the dresses in the Russian Court, intense scenes of violence against the peasantry or ornate glasses that are constantly being smashed, Hulu’s new series “The Great” is filled to the brim with eye-catching scenes. It’s not just the visuals that keep the viewer engaged with the series, however, but also the enchanting and over-the-top dialogue. The characters are witty, sarcastic, jarring and so blatantly rude at times that listening to their verbal duels is exhausting.

This brilliant banter comes from none other than Tony McNamara, coming off his success from his screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” back in 2018. “The Great” mirrors “The Favourite” in its setting: a grand royal castle housing a ridiculous court, corrupt leaders and potentially incriminating gossip. While the two follow different storylines, McNamara’s signature flair for snarky dialogue remains constant throughout. The show’s ode to dark comedy makes it refreshing against other comedy series as it constantly pairs off characters to demonstrate their quick wit and make remarks at the others’ behalf.

“The Great” follows the story of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) before she ascended to the Russian throne. We see her as a young, naive sapling from Austria, whose optimism about her new life as the queen of Russia is crushed by Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), an arrogant, obnoxious child of a man. After months of failed attempts to make a respectable partner out of Peter or to bring Russia into the modern era, Catherine decides to hold a coup alongside her noblewoman turned handmaiden Marial (Phoebe Fox) and quiet but cunning bureaucrat Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan). These three are all misfits in the pompous court of Peter, their brains and hunger for a new Russia exceeding the capital want of their peers.

Throughout the series, Catherine deals with the moral dilemma of overthrowing and murdering her husband in order to bring forth a new political era for Russia, one filled with the Enlightenment ideals that are sweeping her homeland. This dilemma complicates itself with each idiotic act of power Peter performs, such as punching Catherine in the stomach and shooting her pet bear, and with the addition of her lover Leo (Sebastian De Souza), who encourages her revolutionary efforts.

Fanning is a firecracker as Catherine, and her character development throughout the series is something to behold. A poignant scene is after Catherine and Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) meet wounded soldiers at the battlefront to shamefully hand them fanciful macaroons from the court: Catherine leans down to kiss the pebbles, swearing that she is Russian in her heart and will do whatever it takes to ensure a successful future for her new home. Fanning’s performance is the perfect counter to Hoult’s, as he portrays the outwardly brutish persona of a celebrity-royal while sometimes exposing his vulnerable side as an ill-prepared young man who craves validation and parental approval.

“The Great” self-classifies as an “occasionally true story,” and its modern slang mixed in with the cast’s hoity-toity British accents create a historically questionable telling of the real life coup that Catherine organized to oust the ineffective Peter. But, the historical inaccuracy of much of the story, with the introduction of new characters to the narrative and the over exaggeration of the court’s ridiculousness, makes for comedy at its best. McNamara took the ounce of creative liberty that many historical adaptations have and simply ran with it — or rather sprinted until he forged a completely different, simply entertaining, version of the truth. 

This departure from history also gives the series the opportunity to diversify the presumed ethnically homogeneous Russian court. By casting actors of color as high-level bureaucrats and elite Russian figures, including Catherine’s lover Leo, “The Great” brings Catherine’s story into the modern era without overplaying race to tokenize its cast members.

For lovers of heroine-heralding series, the sharp wit of period pieces and dark comedy, “The Great” provides a fresh take on a central European historical story. With brilliant performances by the cast and an equally strong dialogue designed by McNamara, the show keeps viewers enthralled with its bold and brash 10 episodes, ending in a fanatical showdown that leaves plenty of material to work with for any following seasons. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].