The Favourite was arguably the best movie of 2018. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards while Olivia Colman won the Best Actress Oscar. The film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Tony McNamara (who wrote the movie along with Deborah Davis) returns to comedic period pieces with Hulu’s The Great. Does the series live up the to the high bar set by McNamara’s previous work or is it a case of going to the well too many times?
The miniseries chronicles the rise of Catherine. Catherine starts off as a dreamy young girl who is about to marry Peter the Emperor or Russia. She soon learns that life at the court is not as romantic as she expected. The new Empress now yearns to build a new Russia. She just has to get rid of her husband, find a way to get the church on her side, and earn the friendship of the other ladies of the court.
The Great proudly proclaims in the titles screen that it is occasionally true. This is evident immediately by the way the characters talk. The characters mix in randy talk that could be read off any internet website along with enough cussing to make The Wolf of Wall Street seem tame. It is never distracting or off putting, however. The script is able to maximize these moments in a way that add humor to the series.
Some may think to 2006’s Marie Antoinette. That was another historical piece that was highly stylized with a modern flourish. Whereas Sofia Coppola’s movie at times came off as style over substance, The Great succeeds at bringing a more realistic touch to its story. It is ironic that a story that starts off by gleefully pointing out it is not based entirely in fact comes off as more relatable.
This is due to how well the dialogue mixes the purple prose in with the moments it works blue. Even the best period dramas can take its audience out by the elevated language. In The Great, the scripting comes off as people born into the elite showing they truly are no different than the serfs they look down on. It is a subtle dynamic that makes the show that much more engaging.
Nicholas Hoult is magnificent as Peter. An oblivious megalomaniacal despot with mommy and daddy issues, the God ordained ruler of Russia constantly steals the show. Whether reveling in sexual escapades or forcing someone to show off their burning passion, he is a joy to watch. Peter walks around with a devilish grin that is more sincere than evil.
There is still a sinister side to the character. No matter how much humor is in the scenes involving Peter, there is always a chance the Emperor can order the death of someone. It is a frightening anachronism that Hoult is able to pull off without sounding contradictory. This may be the strongest aspect of The Great. There is always intrigue and nothing is ever quite what it seems. The show always has viewers guessing what is next.
The Great is a period piece and is appropriately beautiful. There are many moments that show off the extravagance of the palace and its surrounding grounds. The costume design is also top notch, though it is surprising how inelegant Catherine can look at times. What separates the show from similar ones is how lived in the surroundings seem. Many times, the largeness of a castle wants to be highlighted. This leads to empty ballrooms and lifeless corridors.
It is hard to make a mini series about any great historical figure. There is so much to compare. The Great has to escape the long shadow of The Favourite along with a recent HBO mini series about the same character. Thanks to clever writing and strong performances it does so. It may bend the truth a little, but history is a lot more fun when it is entertaining.
The Great premieres on Hulu May 15.