If the finale of Game of Thrones left you feeling treacherous, then bow down to your new queen Elle Fanning in truly magnificent Hulu series The Great on Stan.
The Beguiled star ascends to career-best form playing young and naïve 18th century German noblewoman Catherine. Not yet ‘the Great’ history buffs know she will one day become, she’s plucked from the near obscurity of a family down on its luck.
Married off to True History of the Kelly Gang star Nicholas Hoult’s mad, bad Emperor Peter of Russia, 16-year-old Catherine believes it’s a fairy tale ending. That lasts precisely five minutes. Hoult plays daddy-issues Peter as Joffrey-level nasty, if a touch less repulsive thanks to those famous cheekbones.
Peter thinks it’s hilarious to serve up severed heads at dinner. He’s permanently bonking Lady Georgina (Wolf Hall’s Charity Wakefield), the wife of best mate Grigor (Top End Wedding’s Gwillym Lee). All the while, the country’s mired in never-ending war and plague is knocking at the door.
Smart and kind, Catherine’s appalled by her dumb as a box of hats husband’s savagery. Swiftly moving from wide-eyed innocent to dismayed gilded cage prisoner, then onto Daenerys-like usurping ambitions, pretty soon she’s assembling conspirators to help her seize the crown.
But rather than the grim of Thrones, what ensues is the darkly comic drama you need in your life right now. Packed with hilariously sweary contemporary dialogue, sauce and soapy shocks, it’s a hoot. The costumes and location work (shot in England and Italy) are to die for.
Created by seasoned Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara (Love My Way, The Secret Life of Us), he penned The Favourite alongside historian Deborah Davis. Olivia Colman secured an Oscar for portraying dithering 18th century British Queen Anne in that Yorgos Lanthimos-directed hit. Gold statuette owners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone were the warring interests whispering in her ear, and Hoult was the bewigged Leader of the Opposition.
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That film’s gloriously batty, potty-mouthed and whip-smart sass lets you know what to expect here, except a bit lighter and brighter. As the opening titles announce with an asterisk, The Great is, “an occasionally true story.” Much like The Favourite, it cuts wild with what might have happened in between the bare bones of historical fact. Taking major liberties, this is very much not the serious HBO drama Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren.
Phoebe Fox steals every scene she’s in as Catherine’s handmaid Marial, a demoted former Lady. Excelling at withering glares and exhausted exasperation, her bone dry put-downs are comedy gold. Doctor Who villain Sacha Dhawan is also fun as cowardly bureaucrat Count Orlov, who wants his country to be better without getting his hands dirty. Well-versed in costume drama, Sebastian De Souza (The Borgias, Medici) is dreamy as Catherine’s lover.
Around the edges, Aussie Belinda Bromilow is also fabulously raunchy as Peter’s slightly batty, butterfly-training but wise Aunt Elizabeth, who keeps subjecting Catherine to weird fertility tests. Adam Godley is cranky as the hectoring Archbishop everyone inappropriately calls Archi. And Joker’s Alfred Pennyworth, Douglas Hodge, is good value as the boozy, randy head of the military, Velementov. Their loyalties are far less clear.
Rousingly feminist in a way Thrones tried but fluffed, The Great is riotously funny, then snaps to devastating loss and back again just when you least expect it. With every episode ending on a pitch-perfect pop tune, the need to march on is irresistible. Excellent stuff, or, as the characters are fond of exclaiming, “Huzzah!”
The complete first season of The Great is available to stream on Stan now.