The chance to see Helen Mirren play another queen (OK, empress) is incentive enough to watch “Catherine the Great,” a four-part British-American miniseries airing stateside on HBO. The fascinating history of Russia’s longest-serving female monarch, court intrigue and lusty bodice-ripping merely seal the deal.
A little disorienting at first, “Catherine” essentially opens in the middle of the story, with Mirren’s title character having recently assumed power from her late husband, producing plenty of loud grumbling from the chattering class.
“‘She took the throne, we can take it from her,’ is what they think,” she says to a confidante regarding those discontented voices, adding later, “Anyone with a claim to the throne is a danger to me” – a description that applies to her own son (Joseph Quinn), who’s angry about his father’s death and covets the crown.
Ruthlessness is the order of the day, and Catherine can’t entirely trust the military. When not jockeying for power, “Catherine” indulges in a whole lot of sex, only some of which could charitably be called romance.
Catherine has a lover when the narrative starts, but soon casts her eye on Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), a politically savvy young officer who catches her eye. A boozy, brawling sort, he’s basically her soulmate, God help them both.
Written by Nigel Williams (“Elizabeth I”) and directed by Philip Martin, “Catherine the Great” revels in the barbarism of the time and still has something to say beyond it, given the way that Catherine’s gender exacerbates her situation, including rumors that abound about her sexual exploits, used in an effort to undermine her.
“What lies they tell about women in power,” she fumes.
For those who aren’t particularly well versed in 18th-century Russian history, the story manages to enlighten as well as entertain. But even viewers who can’t be bothered to remember the unwieldy Russian names or track the geopolitics – mainly driven by Russia’s desire to be taken seriously by the world powers – can simply luxuriate in the performances. Those are toplined by Mirren at her imperious best, but also Clarke, Richard Roxburgh and Rory Kinnear as a particularly officious advisor.
Mirren, as noted, has plenty of experience wearing crowns (in addition to becoming a dame in 2003), and she’ll be back in theaters next month in “The Good Liar,” opposite Ian McKellen.
The peccadilloes of royalty never go out of fashion, but Catherine – with her tumultuous decades-long reign – brings more intrigue to the party than most. Couple that with Mirren’s presence, and “Catherine the Great” pretty well lives up to its name.
“Catherine the Great” premieres Oct. 21 at 10 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.