Review: A giddy romp, Hulu's 'The Great' favors hilarity over history

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult star in madcap take on Catherine the Great

Adam Graham
The Detroit News


Hulu's "The Great" is history that doesn't let history get in the way of a good story. 

Elle Fanning in "The Great."

This delightfully daffy 10-episode comic miniseries from Oscar-nominated "The Favourite" screenwriter Tony McNamara puts a contemporary spin on 18th century historical record. The setting is 1700s Russia but the feel is that of a modern comedy; swap out a few costumes and attitudes and it could take place today.

In short, it's great fun. 

Elle Fanning stars as Catherine, a "gorgeously optimistic" young woman who is married off to the tyrannical Peter (Nicholas Hoult), the mad ruler of Russia. 

She's naively hoping for love, but she's punched in the gut — literally, in fact — by Peter and his bullheaded misogyny. She's forced to outwit Peter, his court and the rule of the land to become Catherine the Great, who would go on to become Russia's longest-ruling leader. 

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in "The Great."

Fanning, who's never had a role that requires as much of her — she's used to playing aloof, porcelain-skinned dreamgirls with their heads in the clouds — digs in and finds the steely resolve deep within Catherine.

She arrives hoping for the best, but her expectations are quickly leveled when she learns little is expected of her aside from providing a child for the emperor. Disgruntled and dismayed, she attempts to flee (her efforts are thwarted by Peter, who nearly drowns her to teach her a lesson) and considers slitting her wrists. 

Yet she sees the possibilities for a humane, progressive Russia, and with the help of a few trusted confidants — including her maid (Phoebe Fox) and a sympathetic member of Peter's court (Sacha Dhawan) — she begins to plot a massive overthrow. And in focusing on her determination, Fanning makes Catherine a figure worth rooting for. 

Hoult, a holdover from "The Favourite," has a riot as Peter, a power hungry, brutish, violent, philandering moron who requires total subservience from his subjects and meets anything but blind loyalty with derision. He's a perfect foil to Fanning, purposely shallow where she is layered, and together they're a splendid anti-couple. 

"The Great" comes with an asterisk at the open of each episode, noting its telling is "an occasionally true story." But it's in that asterisk where the joy of the series lies.

Like "The Favourite," it removes the stuffy trappings often associated with costumed period stories and injects it with modern sensibilities and lively, fresh, witty dialogue. The characters talk (and swear) more like current figures than historical ones, which brings the story forward to today's viewer.

You don't have to be a history buff to love "The Great" — in fact, it helps if you're not into history at all. Yet in a sense, the same way "Hamilton" put a fresh spin on early American politics, "The Great" helps our understanding of dusty old figures by placing them in an engaging, present day context.

Huzzah, indeed.


'The Great'


Rated TV-MA: Language, sexuality, violence

On Hulu