Friday, November 15, 2019

Three Recent Television Portrayals of Catherine the Great

The new, four-part Catherine the Great series on HBO is magnificent. Of course, Helen Mirren deserves most of the credit for the series' dramatic power.  She brilliantly combines Catherine's political savvy with her desire to love and be loved.  The plot of the miniseries focuses on Catherine's relationship with Potemkin, although Orlov and several other lovers are roles to play.  The show is also notable for its beautiful architectural settings and historical customs.  Overall, the point it makes is that Catherine was a sophisticated despot who sought love but never let her personal feelings interfere with her decision to rule Russia alone.  The series gives us glimpses of the Russian state's victory over Pugachev as well as Potemkin's victory in the Crimea.  But the dramatic focus remains on Catherine's relationship with the men around her, including the heir.  Here we see that Catherine, like Elizabeth before her, usually put her political relationship with her son above her maternal one.  

The most recent Russian version of Catherine the Great, entitled Ekaterina:  the Rise of Catherine the Great, is also worth watching.  Now in it's third season, Ekaterina spends a great deal of time on Catherine's young adulthood.  The leading actress, Marina Alexandrova, probably is extraordinarily charismatic, and redolent of the leading actress who played Anne Boleyn so convincingly in the Tutors.  Although this series often veers toward melodrama, it gets Catherine's complicated relationship with both her naive mother and her cynical mother-in-law right.  For years, Catherine worked hard to stay in Elizabeth's good graces. Simultaneously, she seems to have been studying for the position of Russian autocrat.  Most interestingly, this Catherine the Great series allows us to see Catherine's often pathetic husband, Peter III, in a sympathetic light.  Although Peter was immature, Russo-phobic, absurdly militaristic, and politically inept, he was a sensitive musician caught in an almost impossible dilemma.  Despised by his mother, Peter III grew up tense and nervous.  In any case, the film shows all three characters--Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter III--as complex figures caught up in complex political machinations.  

A third version of Catherine the Great was filmed in 2015.  Although this series is clumsier than the other two, it also seems to offer insight into some of personal dynamics that defined Catherine's rise to power.  Elizabeth is particularly well portrayed in this film.  For this view of the dominant force in Catherine's early life in Russia, this series is also well worth watching.  

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