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'The Great' review: Elle Fanning shines as Russia's Catherine

Nicholas Hoult as Peter the Great and Ellen

Nicholas Hoult as Peter the Great and Ellen Fanning as Catherine star in "The Great," which begins streaming Friday on Hulu. Credit: Hulu/Ollie Upton

THE SHOW "The Great"

WHEN | WHERE Begins streaming Friday on Hulu.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The story of 18th century ruler Catherine the Great's rise to the throne as empress of Russia gets an arch comic treatment in this 10-part miniseries created and mostly written by Tony McNamara.

Elle Fanning plays Catherine, scheming to be rid of her husband Peter III — a repulsive emperor played with scenery-chewing vigor by Nicholas Hoult — in the miniseries that is now streaming on Hulu.

MY SAY The creator earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing "The Favourite," in which a similar pitch-black satiric approach was applied to a war over the attentions of 17th century England's Queen Anne. "The Great" is a spiritual successor to that movie, crafted by someone who vividly understands how to manage the difficult art of sustaining this sort of material at the appropriate pitch, at least through the first four episodes.

The key lies in adopting Catherine's point-of-view to the extent that the sheer backward vulgarity of the Russian court remains in the foreground throughout. She's a European stunned by the savagery on display — the women both can't read and have no interest in learning how to do it; a puppy is pitted in a brawl with a raccoon inside of a hollowed-out log; a banquet includes an interlude in which guests are commanded to gouge out the eyes of beheaded enemy soldiers.

It is a portrait of an empire adrift, subject to the whims of a childlike man beset by inadequacies and suffering from major parental issues. The monstrous egotism spreads forth from Peter to touch every corner of court. No one is safe from a punch to the gut, or another serious indignity, and there is precious little thought or care applied to actual matters of governance.

Much of this is heightened and imagined; McNamara is upfront about there being relatively little allegiance to the factual record, attaching an asterisk to the title at the start of the episodes noting that the series is "an occasionally true story." But detaching from the truth allows for stylistic flourishes in presenting this debauchery that capture something timeless about what absolute corruption looks like.

None of this matters without the sort of precise casting necessary to find actors who can construct fully-fledged characters within the parameters of the deadpan dialogue and satiric situations.

Hoult makes for an entertaining foil, fully embracing the sheer vulgarity while providing enough of a hint of the fundamental weakness at the core of this man to make him something more than an entirely grotesque figure.

Fanning is asked to be funny and strong, vulnerable and resolute, often within the same scene and practically the same moment. That she pulls it off with aplomb is not a surprise, of course, because she has long since established herself as one of the better actors working today. But it is a feat worth admiring and the key to keeping the miniseries on a compelling footing.

Without such a strong and interesting Catherine, it would be impossible to sustain the larger satiric vision for even a single episode. The droll courtly machinations start to grow wearisome by the fourth hour, but Fanning never relinquishes her command of the screen.

BOTTOM LINE "The Great" is an engaging historical satire that resonates thanks to its vision of courtly debauchery and the tremendous acting by Fanning, Hoult and the rest of the cast.

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