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'Catherine the Great' review: Helen Mirren not enough to save this tepid tale

Helen Mirren in  "Catherine the Great."

Helen Mirren in  "Catherine the Great." Credit: HBO/Hal Shinnie

MINI-SERIES "Catherine the Great"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In 1762, Catherine the Great (Helen Mirren) has assumed the throne in Russia, after dethroning her husband, Peter, with the help of some allies, like Alexi Orlov (Kevin McNally) and (possibly) Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear). But there remains the question of whether she deserves the throne at all. Her son, Prince Paul (Joseph Quinn) believes he does, and Paul has allies too. Catherine then finds her most important accomplice, and lover: military leader Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke).

MY SAY Catherine the Great was born in 1729 and will finally and offically expire in 2019,  over the course of a respectful, unengaging, and largely lifeless four-hour miniseries. At least she has a great actress perform the last rites in her honor. 

 A lot of talented people have attended this funeral, in fact. "Catherine the Great" reunited Mirren with veteran TV scribe, and novelist Nigel Williams, who wrote Mirren's 2005 Golden Globe-winner, "Elizabeth I." The director is Philip Martin of "The Crown." The cast is good, and period details sumptuous. The canvas is 18th century Russia and this gorgeous production would seem to offer a reasonable simulacrum of that lost world. (It was filmed in Lithuania, St Petersburg and at the Catherine Palace in the Russian town of Tsarskoye Selo.)

  Why so dull? It all gets back to Storytelling 101, which begins with just three invocations: Story, story, story. There isn't really much of one here, which seems remarkable considering the story "Catherine the Great" had to work with. Mirren, an executive producer, and her colleagues, chose to tell mostly one: The story of her heart. "I'm not interested in debauchery," she tells Potemkin. "I'm interested in love...I need love. I have an obsessive need for it." A certain repetitiveness besets her quest. She demandes love of Potemkin, and he intermittently complies. He then demands love of her and vice versa. Meanwhile, they both have other lovers. And so it goes. And goes.

  Love stories can  be good stories, but this seems subsidiary to a far more interesting one. Catherine even hints at that  herself: "There are unscrupulous people in Russia. Fortunately I am one of them."

 Indeed.  Catherine, the real one, artfully dispatched her husband then went on to rule Russia for 34 years and in the course of her reign expanded its borders to their present range, and beyond. Until Lenin happened along a little over a century later, she was easily Russia's most dynamic leader, and a woman who seemed to effortlessly stage-manage a succession of ruthless, powerful, petty, jealous and grasping men. Over these four hours, she does spar with a few of them, most notably her petulant,two-bit offspring, Paul. They're all lackluster too.

 Mirren will get an Emmy nod for this because she's Mirren. She is a great actress, and she's certainly good here. A pity she'll get that nod for so cramped a story.  

 BOTTOM LINE Catherine the Dull. 

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