It’s hard to know what to make of The Great. Written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, it continues the film’s tradition of blending period set-pieces with gleeful expletives. More period comedy than period drama, it’s a rip-roaring and chaotic farce that breathes fresh air into the period format.
The Great is, according to itself, an “occasionally true story” and is unlikely to win any awards for its historical accuracy. Instead, it follows the young Catherine as she undergoes a complicated coming of age in the Russian court, married to the dim and delightfully annoying Emperor Peter (a fantastic turn by Nicholas Hoult). The court is full of personal and political tensions which shift and grow deadly as Catherine attempts to navigate a poorly-conceived coup. The Great uses real-life events, characters, and conflicts to form its own compelling stories that blend fact and fiction.
Many of the characters are frustrating and should be unlikeable, but the strength of the show’s performances make them all compulsively watchable. Though Catherine makes missteps and the audience can keenly feel the looming consequences of her coup attempt, Elle Fanning is continually able to ground the audience’s sympathies for her. Catherine is a fish out of water, still trying to test her boundaries and assert herself within Russia – and against her useless and stubborn husband.
Fanning also deftly weaves between comic and dramatic performances. Though The Great is mostly a gruesome semi-historical comedy, it doesn’t shy away from serious and heavy topics – the gaping class divide within the court between courtiers and servers, smallpox and the vaccination programme against it, the entanglement of church and state – and is perfectly capable of handling history with both seriousness and irreverence. These violent delights have violent ends, and Russia is saturated with blood: in the court, the only way to resolve violence seems to be with violence.
The irreverence of The Great is where it shines, though. Every episode is a gross-out historical piece, with no holds barred from blood, guts, gore, and violence. Though the humour sometimes feels forced, the injection of levity into what is admittedly a bleak and gory part of history keeps The Great from simply being a slog of misery. Like France’s intriguing Versailles and McNamara’s earlier The Favourite, The Great plays with genre boundaries in a decidedly modern way, breaking out of the false conception that historical pieces can’t be just as wild and raunchy as modern comedies. History is, after all, just as absurd as the present. Though The Great has its comic faults, and the onslaught of gore isn’t for everybody, its inventiveness makes it shine and is hopefully a sign of things to come. Period pieces need not be dry – or PG.
Image via Romanov Empire – Империя Романовых.