Friday, March 22, 1991
Copyright The Calgary Herald


Russian epic makes great mini-series
Bob Blakey

Young Catherine, 9 p. m. April 21 and 22 on CTV

Young Catherine is one of those epic tales of romance, political intrigue, sweeping grandeur and rich history that would have made a great new movie.

As it is, this co-production between Canadian, British and Soviet companies is still an exceptionally good mini-series, thanks in part to a veteran big-screen director and the undeniable realism and charm of location filming.

The Catherine of the title is Catherine the Great of Russia, a historical figure with more than enough dramatic appeal to justify some 3 hours of film (four, with commercials).

Director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan’s Run) and his cast and crew shot the film in 52 days entirely in and around Leningrad, using restored palaces and cathedrals.

The main attraction, however, is the new star whose career should be assured with this role: Julia Ormond. She has the looks to portray an empress with many suitors, and the acting ability to transform herself on screen from timid princess to one of the most powerful monarchs in the 18-century world.

Ormand’s experience has been mostly confined to the British stage, except for her portrayal of the cabinet minister’s drug-taking daughter in the acclaimed mini-series Traffik.

Anderson says it was a conscious decision to cast a relative unknown in the part of Catherine, rather than choose from the customary “A and B list” of mini-series prospects.

The story begins in 1744 with the heroine, known then as Princess Sophie in a Prussian principality, being selected as an arranged bride for Grand Duke Peter (Reece Dinsdale), heir to the Russian throne. Sophie travels to St. Petersburg (Leningrad’s pre-Revolutionary name) to begin her new life.

For the reigning Russian monarch, Empress Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), who is childless, the match is an effort to firm up a line of succession, especially if her nephew, the Grand Duke, fathers a boy with Sophie (who is renamed Catherine by her mother-in-law).

The palace turns out to be a minefield of intrigue and treason, and Sophie’s survival at first depends on advice from her new friend, the British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury (Christopher Plummer), and later on her quickly acquired political cunning.

The story ends with her coronation as empress.

Plummer says he found his role appealing for several reasons, including the script itself. “It’s a storybook part of history,” he says. “It lends itself to the theatrical.”

He sees the ambassador as “a bit of an old gossip” whose humorous style adds levity to an otherwise serious tale.

For its scale and ambition, Young Catherine was done on a rather slim budget – $8 million.

It shows at times. Because the Soviet authorities wouldn’t permit shooting inside the cathedrals, a set had to be made. It’s superb – but it’s only one wall, and all the clever camera angles a good director can muster don’t change that fact.

Also, crowd scenes are carefully filmed to hide the lack of costumed extras. Cecil B. DeMille (and Anderson with $40 million) would have used a cast of thousands.

Even so, Young Catherine is one of the best productions of the season, and a tribute to a Canadian film industry that’s coming of age.