February 11, 1991


TNT, Sun.-Mon. Feb. 17-18, 5p.m.

Mother Russia gets her share of agony and bombast in TNT’s slushy “Young Catherine,” scripted by Chris Bryant with all the kick of watered down vodka. With most of the talent in front of the camera, the $8 million, four-hour rundown on the historical story of Catherine the Great bogs down just minutes into the affair.

Elongated telefilm picks up Catherine in 1744 when, still only a Prussian princess, she’s shipped off to Russia to marry looney Grand Duke Peter (Reece Dinsdale), the nephew of Empress Elizabeth.

Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), an extravagant, commanding woman running Russia on a tight leash, has determined that young Catherine will produce an heir. She also gives the young backwater princess a couple of emotional shakeups by demanding that she change her name from Sophie to Catherine, and join the Orthodox church.

As an extra jolt, Elizabeth boots the young woman’s mother (Marthe Keller) from Russia – accusing her of spying for Frederick the Great (Maximillian Schell, who growls through his role).

Catherine, arrived in St. Petersburg with the blessing of Frederick, wins over the British ambassador (Christopher Plummer), hears advice from a court priest (an unconvincing John Shrapnel), confides in a lady-in-waiting (Laurie Holden) and enchants an ardent soldier, Count Orlov (Mark Frankel).

Duke Peter, who smashes toy soldiers and shrieks a great deal, does marry Catherine. But he can’t consummate the marriage because of a physical problem, explained only too graphically in Part II. Catherine, under pressure to produce an heir, falls back on the lovestricken Orlov until the Duke’s repaired.

Extending through the breakup of the royal marriage after Elizabeth’s death, the telefilm winds down with young Catherine’s ornate coronation as Catherine the Great.

Michael Anderson’s static direction doesn’t help producer-writer Bryant’s florid meller with its uninspired dialog and mechanical dubbing.

Julia Ormond limns Catherine as a pretty, demure young thing whose smile eventually hardens. This Catherine not only has the royal court to contend with, she has a soggy script working against her.

Redgrave’s Elizabeth moves unperturbed through the proceedings, rising to the occasion with a couple of flareups, as in dressing down Catherine’s mom and dragging a distraught Catherine across the floor. Plummer’s refined; Frankel is strong.

Franco Nero looks menacing as one of Catherine’s foes, and Dinsdale as Peter suggests Roddy MacDowell gone berserk.

Ernest Day’s camerawork, lovely when he works with shadowy compositions, turns flat when it has to deal with the awesome production design cooked up by Natalia Vasilieva or the architectural wonders of Leningrad (the film was shot on location).

Larissa Konnikova’s impressive costumes are breathtakingly extravagant, and Ron Wisman’s immaculate editing is a plus. — TONE