This ruler of Russia may have been great, but Judge Bill Gibron can't work up that amount of praise for this fascinating, if flawed, docu-drama-mentary.
A Great Ruler—A Good Biography.
She was considered one of the most enlightened despots in all of 18th Century Europe. Yet she was only a minor German princess with connections to Swedish royalty when it all began. Against the political odds, 14-year-old Sophie Augusta Fredericka somehow found herself betrothed to the future Czar of Russia. Catherine I, the current ruler, was looking for someone to wed her loutish, lumbering nephew, Peter and the little girl from lesser stature seemed perfect. Instantly, young Sophia met with Catherine's approval. She quickly found her husband-to-be a dull, boorish simp, incapable of anything intelligent or inspired. Playing politics both personal and public as best she could, Sophia started friendships with members of Catherine's court, including the Ambassador to Great Britain and his protégé. It improved her position inside the royal Russian realm.
Her marriage was a sham from the very beginning, with Peter practically unable to consummate their vows. As 15 loveless years rolled by, the newly christened Catherine II (she converted to the Russia family's Eastern Orthodox religion prior to the wedding) took lovers and eventually provided Peter with her required biological duty—an heir. When Catherine I died, Peter took power and proved just as ineffectual a leader as he was a lover. Along with several members of the military, Catherine II plotted his overthrow (and some say, his death). After the coup, Catherine II (or, "The Great," as she would come to be known) decided to pull her country out of the dark ages. Focusing on philosophers like Voltaire, she led the nation for the next 30 years, creating an enviable dynasty build on cunning, ruthlessness, and the newfound notions of justice, progress, and a centralized government. Ahead of her time, Catherine the Great stands as a model for light in a time of great cultural and sociological darkness.
Now thanks to PBS, we have a truncated version of Catherine's amazing story in the form of a two-part biographical documentary. Tapping the unusual approach of both factually describing and fictionally recreating the events that made up this beloved leader's life, directors Paul Burgess (Part 1) and John Paul Davidson (Part 2) paint a portrait both intimate and irritating. It is safe to say that, once the coup has been completed and Catherine moves from shaker to maker, the narrative turns tepid. Part of the problem rests in the almost exclusive focus on Catherine's late-in-life love affair with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, noted field marshal and statesman. Leaving all the backstabbing and political intrigue aside, Davidson draws out unevenly paced scenes of Catherine and Grigori (played with relish by actors Emily Bruni and Dan Badarau) lounging and loving each other. These are supposed to be in stark contrast to the formalism in the Russian royal court, a place where even a tender kiss must be masked by a large hand fan. This material lacks the impact the presenters hoped for, though. Instead of instilling in us a sense of Catherine's passion, or Potemkin's acumen, we get a couple of costumed characters going through the basic biopic motions.
No, the far better material here is the opening entry, 57 minutes of scheming and vindictiveness. Catherine is seen as a sharp, sensible rival to her namesake's power, able to play both victim and victor with relative ease. Her uncomfortable moments with the miserable drunk Peter are also well done, as they clearly establish the motivation for the later power struggle. With the help of scholars and experts, each one presenting their particular slant on Catherine's life and conduct, we get a wonderfully well-rounded portrait. Though some of the historical accuracy is suspect (several commentators state, rather intently, that they are merely offering speculation in their explanations), the drama behind such situations is not. We really find ourselves rooting for Catherine to overcome her addled, amateurish husband and feel the inevitable tension when several of her secret correspondences to individuals outside the Russian realm of power are discovered.
As the title character, Bruni is not bad. She never once ages, though, looking exceptionally young even as the narrative carries us through Catherine's middle and later years. Also, the format will be a little confusing for those hoping for either a straight-ahead biography or a standard scholarly discussion. By mixing documentary with docudrama, we get a heady hybrid that occasional confuses (the Court speaks French—sans subtitles—which was the custom in those days) while sometimes clarifying the information we are hearing. It's just a shame the second half was not as engrossing as the first. Catherine the Great led a remarkable life. Had a different approach been taken in illustrating her later rule, we'd have a stellar piece of historical reenactment. As it stands, this PBS offering is merely good, not…great.
Catherine the Great is presented in a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed image that is amazingly crisp and loaded with colorful detail. Filmed at many of the actual locations where Catherine lived, the opulence on screen is perfectly supported by the DVD's technical specs. It's just a shame that 16x9 buffs have been left out. The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, providing easily decipherable dialogue and wonderful classical underscoring. There are no extras added as part of the disc, which is really a shame. Some context about Catherine, or Russia in the 18th Century, would have helped to cement the scope of the storyline. In essence, this is a typical PBS presentation—ambitious in its approach, knowledgeable in its analysis, yet ultimately less than spectacular in its aesthetics. You will learn much about the late, lamented leader of pre-Communist Russia from watching this fine documentary. Just don't expect to be moved once the focus shifts from the political battlefield to the personal boudoir.
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