Friday, April 19, 1991
Copyright The Windsor Star
Romantic Russia: Intriguing, humorous miniseries on Catherine the Great worthy of PG rating
The long course of Russian history has been a bloody and turbulent affair. According to Young Catherine, kinky, too.
I don’t want to tell you exactly why, because that would spoil all the fun. Suffice it to say that in Part II of this four-hour miniseries, the Grand Duke Peter has a “spanking” good time with his new wife, who dons some imaginative attire in order to get the sexually disinterested Peter to pay attention to her.
There’s also a scene in which Peter, who is deathly afraid of the sight of blood, is tricked by members of his imperial Guard into getting dead drunk so that the royal physician can perform a simple operation to correct a sexual dysfunction.
After the procedure, the doctor comes up with an explanation for the soldiers to tell the Duke. It has something to do with a contest involving the comparative sizes of soldiers’ “weapons” and, as the doctor advises the troops: “I suggest that you tell the Grand Duke he cut his on a piece of glass. And then I suggest that you tell him that he won.”
The sexual humor should be a giveaway that lurking behind the scenes in this miniseries are the Brits, who love this sort of thing, American network censors would have a fit over such sexual innuendo, but not the Brits and us sexually sophisticated Canucks, who combined to produce Young Catherine and sold it in February to American cable network TNT. The miniseries comes to CTV Sunday and Monday, airing on Kitchener’s Channel 12 (cable 13) at 9 p.m.
For those concerned that Young Catherine is all sniggering sex jokes, fear not. Filmed in Leningrad, it is a lavishly mounted tale of romance, history and political intrigue, spiced with humor as a bonus. The net result is that Young Catherine is several rungs up the quality ladder from the usual romantic miniseries of its kind.
Young Catherine is the story of the rise to power of Catherine the Great, who came to the Russian imperial court in the mid-1700s as a 16-year-old Prussian girl in a marriage contract. She arrived as “goods on approval” for the Grand Duke Peter, nephew of the formidable Empress Elizabeth. Unfortunately for Catherine, the Grand Duke turned out to be a grand dip, with childlike mannerisms and an unnatural obsession for the military, with toy soldiers making due until he got his own regiment of real soldiers to play with. Despite her husband’s irrational, imbecile qualities, Catherine prevailed through political opposition and personal turmoil to become empress and lead Russia belatedly out of the Dark Ages.
“It truly is one of the great dramatic stories in all of history,” says veteran producer Michael Anderson. “Here was this young girl from an unknown principality who was brought to Russia to see if she would be suitable as a bride for the future emperor, and through amazing determination and tenacity ends up being the Ruler of all the Russias, which was one of the great titles of its day. What she went through and accomplished is utterly amazing.” Adds Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who appears as the British ambassador to Russia and confidant of Catherine’s: “It was almost as if Catherine knew her life was going to be made into a miniseries. She did everything right to sell her character.”
Including an affair, which is always good for ratings.
Plummer plays Sir Charles Hanbury, who befriends the politically naive Catherine and counsels her on matters of state, Vanessa Redgrave is impressive as Empress Elizabeth, the haughty, imperious ruler who brought Catherine to court in an arranged marriage with her nephew and future emperor, the Grand Duke Peter (Reece Dinsdale).
Appearing in the title role of Catherine is Julia Ormond, a relative newcomer best known as the daughter of a Conservative minister in last season’s acclaimed British miniseries about the international drug trade, Traffik.
Produced in part by Pat Kerns’ Primedia Productions of Toronto, Young Catherine is a lavishly mounted spectacle shot in the opulent confines of the Summer Palace of Russian rulers in Leningrad. Everything about the look of Young Catherine is top drawer, from the costuming right down to the regal, show-quality horses used in the production.
Yet too much budget, perhaps, went into look. The producers scrimped on battle scenes, which are perfunctory at best. If I recall correctly, one canon gets fired – a token measure considering that during the course of the events portrayed, Russia goes to war with Prussia in a conflict that eventually topples Peter and puts Catherine on the throne.
The miniseries opens with Catherine, still a teenage girl named Sophie Anhalt Zerbst, being summoned from her small principality in Prussia as a prospective bride for the heir to the Russian throne. Faithful to historical detail, the miniseries reflects how King Frederick of Prussia (Maximillian Schell) desperately wants the marriage to proceed in order to cement an alliance with Russia on his eastern border.
Arriving in Russia, Catherine overcomes opposition from those at court who favor a Polish prospect, yet she manages to win the approval of the domineering Empress Elizabeth by embracing the Russian Orthodox Church. Success does not come without a price. Elizabeth changes the new bride’s name from Sophie to Catherine and banishes her mother from Russia for spying.
Peter, meanwhile, leaves Catherine a virgin for two years and wants nothing to do with the woman he calls a “breeding sow.” On the advice of others at court, Catherine has an affair with Count Orlov (Mark Frankel) in order to provide Elizabeth with a necessary future successor. Peter eventually becomes stricken with smallpox, and by the time he assumes the throne with Catherine at his side, is on the verge of insanity.
Dinsdale is fine as the Grand Duke Peter, playing the mentally diminished, would-be ruler with a flourish reminiscent of Tom Hulce’s interpretation of Mozart in Amadeus.
A nice blend of pure entertainment, pageantry and pop history. Young Catherine is, all in all, an entertaining four hours of TV.
** This article was also published in the EDMONTON JOURNAL on April 21, 1991.