Tony McNamara is a prolific Australian playwright and TV writer who shifted to the big big leagues with his screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Now he’s the credited creator and principal writer on The Great, which plays, essentially, like the TV series of The Favourite – and that’s a good, good thing.
Instead of a royal castle in 18th Century England, we’re in a royal castle in 18th Century Russia, and instead of Queen Anne, we’ve got the young German woman, Sophie, who was to become Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning). At the beginning of the series, she is betrothed to Peter III, the Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and quickly discovers that he is immature, volatile and ridiculous (among other undesirable traits). If you know your history you’ll know where this is headed; our fun is going on that journey, as Sophie/Catherine must very quickly learn how to navigate, survive, prosper and ultimately take control within Peter’s raucous court.
And fun it absolutely is! This show is a constant delight. As with The Favourite, McNamara’s primary comedic conceit is that these 18th Century courts were full of childish, drunken, asinine men, drinking, brawling, bickering and forever pandering. The women are portrayed as more mature but no less scheming: survival in court is by any means necessary. Catherine’s corresponding character in The Favourite is not Queen Anne, but the young servant Abigail, played by Emma Stone; each is smart enough to plot their moves through the madhouse with ever-evolving tactics, accumulating allies along the way, while always realising that the seat of power is unassailable, until it is not.
Fanning is superb and Hoult – with the flashier role – astounding. He’s been building up to this sort of comic extravagance for awhile now – he played a similar role in The Favourite – and everything he does here is gold, every line reading, every physical bit, every expression. His Peter is a precise, masterful comic creation.
If you loved The Favourite you’ll love this; I would go so far as to suggest the directors have even been told to ape, to some degree, Lanthimos’ style. The production design is similar, the set-up obviously so, but the biggest connective tissue is McNamara, whose obsession with this sort of material – The Great began as a sprawling two-part play at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008 – has finally to come to roost, spectacularly. This is TV at its finest, boldest, and most thrillingly auteurist. It is McNamara’s vision, and it is indeed great.