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For some, “Dame Helen Mirren playing the Catherine the Great” is all the convincing they’ll need to watch this new biographical limited series, which is perfectly understandable. The casting of Mirren in the role, which follows the Russian empress in the embattled latter years of her life, is a smart choice that proves its worth every time she’s onscreen. As a Catherine clinging to power after a bitter coup with white knuckles and an eye for devoted men, Mirren renders an almost mythic figure with grounded determination, gravitas, and occasionally petty instincts. With Mirren, who is also an executive producer, you know you’re in the hands of a pro — even when the show she’s anchoring lets her down.
Make no mistake: HBO and Sky’s “Catherine the Great,” from “Elizabeth I” writer Nigel Williams, is a handsome and competent production that luxuriates in every regal Russian set it gets (albeit with an occasionally distracting green screen for more elaborate outdoor scenes). Mirren is as good as aforementioned, and Gina McKee especially pops as the Countess Praskovya Bruce, Catherine’s wry confidante with no shortage of tricks up her sleeve. Plus, unlike many more expansive biopics, the series makes the sharp choice to home in on a relatively small slice of its subject’s life in order to devote more time to its intricacies. It must have been tempting, for example, to portray the bloody coup that got Catherine the throne, deposed husband and all. Instead, “Catherine the Great” drops in well after Catherine has secured her reign to explore the tense days of her fighting to maintain control.
Series - Episodes - Lack - Ambition - Force
And yet: stepping back from the series’ four episodes reveals a disappointing lack of ambition in portraying such a titanic force’s final days. For as fascinating as Catherine and her life at court was, “Catherine the...
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