REVIEW: THE GREAT

Starring

Elle Fanning (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil)
Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite)
Phoebe Fox (One Day)
Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Louis Hynes (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
Sacha Dhawan (Iron FIst)
Sebastian de Souza (Skins)
Adam Godley (Powers)
Charity Wakefield (Serena)
Douglas Hodge (Red Sparrow)
Belinda Bromilow (All Saints)
Richard Pyros (Hacksaw Ridge)

Elle Fanning in The Beard (2020)

Created by Oscar nominee Tony McNamara, a retelling of Catherine the Great extends the film’s sharp, anachronistic absurdity into a patchy 10-hour series. When The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd take on a period drama, landed in 2018, it earned critical raves for its incisive rupture of conventions, and its recasting of a historical shadow – Britain’s dowdy, gout-ridden Queen Anne in 1711 – into the linchpin of a lesbian love and political intrigue triangle. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz were both nominated for best supporting actress for their turns as ruthless, petty court schemers; Olivia Colman won the Oscar for her loopy Queen Anne.
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
A show deserves to be seen on its own terms, but the Favourite’s heralded shadow looms large over The Great, the new Hulu series by one of its screenwriters, Tony McNamara, which expands the film’s carnivorous court farce into a 10-hour series on another female monarch, Russia’s Catherine the Great. But while Anne was a largely toothless ruler, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is remembered as one of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, a figure who has already merited a well-funded HBO miniseries starring Helen Mirren. It’s rich territory from which to build a portrait of a young woman solidifying her voice, but The Great is a coming-of-age comedy of cruel manners – an anachronistic farce of royal leisure and licentiousness that luxuriates, if unevenly and inconsistently, in the feature’s insight on human capriciousness through heightened inanity.Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
#The show bills itself, pointedly, as “an occasionally true story”, and like The Favourite and recent historical revisions such as Apple TV+’s Dickinson, revels in its anachronisms (swearing and feminism chief among them). In this conception, a headstrong, 19-year-old Catherine ships off to forbidding Russia for marriage (the real Catherine was 32, married for 15 years and the mother of two children by the show’s start date in 1761, but that’s no matter). Like her inspiration, this Catherine is a francophile German, enthralled by the Enlightenment and unhappily married to a man-child, Emperor Peter of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). The Russian court is a bacchanalian train wreck, a sumptuously and unsparingly filmed circus of drunken mirth, public sex, rococo ladies in powdered wigs and unceasing acts of senseless cruelty (murdered animals, severed heads, accidentally shot veterans – my hands were over my eyes at least once an episode). Appalled by Peter’s lyrical narcissism (“Women are for seeding not reading,” he remarks, then winks at the show’s camp – “hm, pithy!”) and lack of interest in progress (Freedom for the serfs! Science! Voltaire!) Catherine plunges into a naively considered coup, the execution of which consumes the rest of the series.
Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
At its best, The Great plays like the slickest of TikTok historical summaries, distilling the story of a young woman radicalized by cruelty into a snappy, vibrant female protagonist for the modern reader. Fanning’s Catherine spits her archly comic lines with zest and yet holds the center as a woman growing through self-doubt, a romance with an assigned court lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza), and the tensions of church, class and Enlightenment ideals embodied by the Orthodox archbishop (Adam Godley), sharp-tongued maid Marial (Phoebe Fox), and the hapless politician Orlov (Sacha Dhawan). She’s a tricky creation, one the series crucially pulls off; Fanning nails McNamara’s fanged comedy and ludicrous gamesmanship – feeding macaroons to a fingerless soldier on the frontlines, using the polite “indeed” as a smiling lie – while keeping one foot firmly on the human ground.
Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
That’s a welcome achievement, because The Great can wade too long in the grotesque. While The Favourite was brisk in its machinations, canny in its deployment of its most squeamish corporeal elements (the gout), The Great uses its 10-hour length as license for an aggressive assault on the boundaries of decorum. The squirm-inducing stunts of torture and vomit work in bursts, in a feature or perhaps half-hour chapters, but there’s only so much garish, ghastly flouting of the rules the point requires and the show’s brand of ruthless absurdity strains under 10 hour-long episodes; halfway in, I found myself wishing for a reprieve.Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
Still, The Great maintains The Favourite’s bleak assessment of human motivation and capacity for meaninglessness in the name of keeping up appearances. The ornate sets and lush costume designs are excellent, evocative where the dialogue is crude, as is the color-blind casting; Fanning and Fox, in particular, are a superb duo, while an admirably committed Hoult does the most with a character whose irredeemability grates as the hours wear on (and whose desperation for flattery is … evocative of American politics).Elle Fanning in The Great (2020)
The Great is at it best when it sublimates the eternal, tone-agnostic political dilemmas – radicalism v incremental progress, choice v force – into nonsense games of one-upmanship. And though it revels too much in blunt matters of the flesh as state, the spectacle of arbitrary death, and the collapse of the personal and public, its portrayal of the yawning chasm between the court’s opulent depravity and the serenity a royal poker face remains sharp. For all its silliness, The Great understands a longstanding truth: public performance, whether in 18th-century Russia or now, can be, as one courtier puts it, “all a foolish game”.

HALLOWEEN OF HORROR REVIEW: THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH

CAST

Helen McCrory (The Queen)
Phoebe Fox (Black Mirror)
Jeremy Irvine (war Horse)
Adrian Rawlins (Harry Potter)
Ned Dennehy (Good Omens)

40 years after the events of the first film, bombs drop down on London during the Blitz of World War II. Eve Parkins joins her schoolchildren and the school’s headmistress, Jean Hogg, to evacuate them to the countryside town of Crythin Gifford. On the journey there, Eve meets dashing pilot, Harry Burnstow, who is stationed at an airfield near Crythin Gifford. Upon arrival, Eve is confronted by a raving madman, Jacob, and flees.

Though Eve and Jean do not approve of the place, there is no other alternative. That night, Eve has a nightmare of how she was forced to give up her baby when she was younger; when she awakens, she hears the noise of a rocking chair coming from the house cellar. There, she finds a message, scolding her for letting her child go, and sees a woman dressed in black. The next morning, one of the children, Edward, who has been mute since the death of his parents in a bombing, is bullied by two other children and sees the Woman in Black in the nursery. Eve feels that something is wrong when Edward starts constantly carrying around a rotten doll. That night, one of the boys that was bullying him is drawn out of the house by the Woman in Black; Eve finds his body on the beach.

Eve later sees the Woman in the graveyard, where she finds the grave of Nathaniel Drablow. She chases the ghost to the beach and is overcome by visions of Nathaniel’s death. At the house, she and Harry establish the story of the ghost through an old record made by Alice Drablow before her death at the hands of the Woman in Black: it is her sister, Jennet Humpfrye, the mother of the child she adopted, Nathaniel. Jennet is haunting them because of Nathaniel’s premature death, and is punishing Eve in particular for giving up her baby. Eve journeys into the abandoned town to confront Jacob, who is blind and therefore unable to be killed by the ghost, as he cannot see her. However, he has been driven insane by the deaths of all the other children and tries to kill Eve before she escapes.

Back at the house, Jean finds one of the girls trying to strangle herself under the Woman’s spell. During an air raid, the girl suffocates herself using a gas mask. After this death, Harry takes them to his airfield, which is revealed to be fake. Eve realizes the Woman has followed them. Edward flees, where he apparently dies by walking into a fire basket. Eve finds out that Edward is still alive and at Eel Marsh House. Realizing the Woman in Black wants her alone, she drives to the island, where she finds Edward walking out into the marsh to drown himself where Nathaniel died. She crawls after him, but they are dragged down into the mud by the ghost. At the last minute, Harry arrives and saves them, though he is dragged down to his death instead.

Months later, Eve has adopted Edward, and they are living in London. Although they believe they are free from the ghost, once they leave their house, she appears again and smashes a picture of Harry.It does what it says on the tin, and there’s nothing wrong with that – and it’s a damned sight better than many horror sequels that are simply remakes of the first movie. Yes, it could have been better, but it zips along quite briskly and yet still manages to pack a punch when it needs to. Not bad at all.