In HBO’s “Catherine the Great,” Mirren portrays the 18th-century Russian empress at the height of her powers.
In the first episode of the HBO mini-series “Catherine the Great,” the empress of Russia is hunched over her desk writing about her political ambitions while her jealous lover stares into a hand mirror, primping for a cross-dressing masquerade at the palace.
“It just feels like something has changed between us,” he says, wearing a golden scoop-neck gown, his makeup half-done. Catherine (Helen Mirren) wears a man’s suit with a tricorn hat that makes her look like an American revolutionary.
She rises from her desk, strides over to her male companion and, in a few succinct sentences, puts an end to their yearslong romance.
“You want something I cannot give you,” Mirren says simply. “You want power.”
Her lover, Count Orlov, who helped engineer the coup that unseated her husband, Peter III, thinks it is time to marry her and take on a more powerful role in her regime. But Catherine sees an army of men encircling her, plotting ways to co-opt her authority, and she has no intention of giving it up.
“They totally underestimated her,” Mirren said in an interview, “From that moment on, she knew she had to control the male aristocrats around her. And she did. She did by outsmarting them.”
The life of Catherine the Great has long been fodder for cinematic period dramas. But in the past, filmmakers chose to center the story on Catherine’s early life — how she came to rule an empire rather than the three and a half decades she spent ruling it. In one of the most prominent films about her life, “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), Marlene Dietrich played a young, wide-eyed German princess who is summoned to Russia to marry the future monarch. In 1991, Julia Ormond played a similar character in the mini-series “Young Catherine,” and four years later, so did Catherine Zeta-Jones.
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