Friday, February 15, 1991
Copyright 1991


Tale of courtly intrigue loses control of subject
David Klinghoffer

For a long time in European history, a failed marriage could lead not only to unhappiness but to civil disorder and war across the continent. That’s what makes the historical subject of “Young Catherine” – about the rise of Catherine the Great – so fascinating.

If only director Michael Anderson had managed to keep pace with screenwriter Chris Bryant, TNT might have come away with a miniseries with a serious kick to it.

As related in “Young Catherine,” which airs Sunday and Monday from 8 to 10 p.m., the facts go like this: Catherine’s father is a minor Prussian prince, and with the connivance of Prussia’s Frederick the Great, Catherine visits and wins favor at the court of Russia’s Empress Elizabeth. There she proves herself worthy of Elizabeth’s nephew and intended successor, Grand Duke Peter.

Inconveniently, it turns out that Peter suffers from a combination of immaturity and insanity. As amusingly portrayed by Reece Dinsdale, he’s kind of a Russified Crispin Glover – whom Mr. Dinsdale actually resembles. A queer young man, Peter prefers children’s games to state affairs and turns hysterical under all sorts of unexpected circumstances. Like Mr. Glover in “Wild at Heart,” he even keeps some pet cockroaches. He is, in short, fabulously wrong for the job of Russian czar.

He also hates Catherine (Julia Ormond). After surviving a bout of smallpox, for reasons having to do with a particular sexual defect he refuses to consummate their marriage.

Meanwhile the Empress (Vanessa Redgrave) is getting impatient, waiting for Catherine to deliver a son. As Elizabeth, Miss Redgrave is wonderfully sinister. With her broad, evil smile – “the Russian people are like children,” she explains to Catherine – she’s like a demon enthroned. Her impatience obliges Catherine to take a lover, which in turn obliges Peter to take a mistress.

And so on, until the situation turns so bad that Catherine has to order a company of loyal soldiers home from the front, where they have been battling Frederick’s army, to protect her from her own husband.

Now, lots of this is as fun as it sounds. It’s all like a big soap opera, where the stakes include the future of Europe from France to the Pacific Ocean. Yet over these four hours, which include everything from court intrigue to kinky sex, your interest may drag. This shouldn’t happen.

Mostly it is the fault of Mr. Anderson, who seems to believe he’s shooting pictures to appear in a high-school history textbook.

For the most part there’s no faulting the actors here. Maximillian Schell makes an attractively disheveled Frederick, while Christopher Plummer gets big billing for his small but charming role as the ambassador from England. On the other hand, Catherine’s lover, Mark Frankel, hams up the pining looks a little. As Catherine herself, the slightly pinch-faced Miss Ormond is sound enough, but doesn’t quite impress you as the woman of mixed greatness and perversity who has come down to us in history. That, and the whole miniseries, may have been an impossible challenge.

WHAT: “Young Catherine”
WHEN: Sunday and Monday, 8 to 10 p.m.