The Great has certain charms. Supplied by Stan.
The Great has certain charms. Supplied by Stan.

Bonkers antics in wickedly funny TV show

The luminous Elle Fanning may be the title character of the wickedly funny The Great, but she is not the star.

Fanning, and everyone else in this wonderful ensemble, are decisively gazumped on every level by Nicholas Hoult with his wild, strange and alluring performance as the petulant Emperor Peter.

Scene-stealer doesn't seem adequate a description.

The Great is the self-confessed historically inaccurate story of Russian Empress Catherine the Great's youth, from the moment she steps foot into the alien court of the Russian royals.

The eight-part series was created by Australian Tony McNamara, one of the Oscar-nominated co-writers of The Favourite, the satirical and deliciously nasty movie starring Olivia Colman.

Hoult was also in The Favourite, as the scheming PM-aspirant Robert Harley. Even in a movie with heavy hitters such as Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, Hoult more than held his own.

So here, still with McNamara's words and with a cast that's not led by three Oscar winners, he is shoulders above everyone else, and not just because he's a tall guy. To be fair to the rest of the cast, which also includes Gwilym Lee, Sacha Dhawan and Phoebe Fox, Hoult has the most exquisite role.

 

A wild performance.
A wild performance.

 

Fanning's Catherine arrives at court, all innocence and optimism, expecting the match with Peter to be one of florid romance and lots of swooning, only to find her new husband is a louse.

He's entitled, capricious and perpetually pleased with himself, demanding laughter for every mean-spirited joke, which the sycophants at court provide with enthusiasm lest they find themselves demoted or killed.

Throwing out "huzzahs!" as frequently as he smashes vodka glasses, Peter's main preoccupation is amusements and the occasional demand that his army kills the Swedish "blonde f**ks" he foolishly declared war with.

Curses are threaded through Peter's dialogue with wild abandon and Hoult relishes every syllable that passes his lips. It's also a fantastical physical performance, both stiff and limber at the same time, a contradiction in the same way that Hoult has perfectly crafted a character that fully embodies the term "man-child".

 

Nicholas Hoult is deliciously watchable in The Great.
Nicholas Hoult is deliciously watchable in The Great.

 

Throw in an empire and unlimited resources and you have a full manifestation of the id.

Which adds to up to one hella gloriously fun character to watch.

Without little adherence to historical fidelity, McNamara is able to play out the main story however he wants, with the promise that it will lead to what did happen in real-life: Catherine's coup of Peter to claim the throne and rule Russia for decades.

It only takes about three scenes for her to realise the marriage is ill-suited to her.

Catherine is more interested in Rousseau's Social Contract than the finer points of millinery, while Peter's idea of modernising is banning full-faced beards, lest everyone else in Europe mistakes Russians as wearing beavers on their faces.

Encouraged by her maid Marial (Fox), Catherine begins to plot, with the at-first reluctant help of Count Orlov (Dhawan).

 

Many of the supporting roles have colourblind casting.
Many of the supporting roles have colourblind casting.

 

The Great isn't as biting, dark or nihilistic as The Favourite but it has its own charms. It's a really enjoyable diversion, one elevated by Hoult's antics.

It also functions as a spiritual companion to Apple TV+'s Dickinson, in which they're both anachronistic to their historical settings in tone, energy and occasional colourblind casting. In both The Great and Dickinson, that works in their favour.

The Great is not The Favourite (and, realistically, what TV show could clear that bar?) and it's not wistful like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, but if you come for the Hoult performance, you won't be disappointed.

The Great starts streaming on Stan from Saturday, May 16

Share your TV and movies obsessions | @wenleima

Originally published as Bonkers antics in wickedly funny TV show



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