Catherine the Great is the vanity project of star and executive producer Helen Mirren. One way you can tell it’s a vanity project is that Mirren is 74 years old while the character she plays — at least at the start of the mini-series — is 33 years old.
Now I don’t wish to be ungallant. It’s certainly true that Mirren has always scrubbed up well. She is a very handsome woman and she knows she is a handsome woman, as reflected by all those films and TV series earlier in her career — not, though, The Queen, as far as I recall — when she appears with her kit off. I don’t know whether she actually had it written into her contracts — ‘Will not appear unless there is a scene where I get to bare my splendid norks’ — but it did sometimes seem that way and jolly nice it was too.
Even so, even allowing for the power of make up and cunning lighting and bravura acting skills, a 41-year age gap between actress and role is quite an insuperable one. I certainly noticed this during the scenes in which the love of her life, Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), vows eternal lust for her (in preference to the character played by Gina McKee, in real life a sprightly 55). Sure, in real life he was her junior, but only by 10 years. When Clarke is required to swoon over Mirren, you don’t look on indulgently and applaud the youthful passion. You think: ‘So he’s some kind of gerontophile is he? And he’s seriously into GILFs?’ This distraction threatens to unbalance the whole drama.
Yet here’s the odd thing: almost none of the other critics are mentioning this. When they do, it’s only in order to emphasize what a bravura, show-stopping performance Mirren gives (true: she’s the only decent thing in it) as this flirtily playful yet wise, charming yet ruthless, feminine yet masculine Russian Empress. Or, worse still, to praise it as the reviewer in the left-wing New Statesman does, as a ‘fantastic’ and ‘game-changing’ casting decision.
Seriously? Catherine the Really not that Great, as it ought to be called, is very thin gruel. Apart from the expensive locations in St Petersburg, and the evidently generous costume budget, there’s really nothing to keep you watching beyond the first episode other than the nagging thought: ‘I wonder if it can get any more boring?’ I got as far as Episode 2, thinking that maybe the war with the Turks would provide some thrilling battle scenes. But no, these take place off camera, and all you see is the carnage of the aftermath, with just the odd, token wounded Turk staggering from the wreckage to be finished off with a saber.
The script is leaden history-by-numbers. There’s nothing to cause you to engage with the characters, let alone root for Catherine other than that she’s the title role and she’s played by Mirren. She usurped her husband’s throne and she’s surrounded by plotting malcontents, yet you never feel she’s under any serious threat because she’s just so feisty and ‘you go girl!’ and omnicompetent while the men around her are mostly useless gray minions probably beset with erectile disfunction.
It’s a measure of the crazy dishonesty of our times that on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics give this epic snoozefest 100 percent. But I’ll bet if and when we discover what real people think it will be lucky to scrape 50 percent. Sure, it’s a lovely progressive fantasy notion that we’re all now so enlightened that we don’t even notice an actress’s age any more. But a fantasy notion it is and — until CGI effects get a lot better — a fantasy notion it always will be. Get woke go broke.
Catherine the Great airs Mondays on HBO.