The Empress Elizabeth II rules mid-eighteenth century Russia. She marries her heir, the physically impotent German prince Peter, to the German princess, Catherine (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Catherine takes a lover, bears a child, plots against her husband and deposes him after he has reigned only six months. She becomes the Empress Catherine II. Well-educated and with liberal ideas, she is an astute politician and wages war with success. Yet when rebellion confronts her with the choice between fostering freedom and suppressing rebellion, she chooses suppression.
Catherine II was a fascinating and complex ruler, the period was crucial in determining the future course of Russia, its expansionary empire, its reactionary society and primitive economy. This film, however, addresses none of these great themes, except in the most cursory and superficial manner. It is a shallow drama of empty spectacle, in which intimate diversions are followed by unconvincing public events, battles and rebellions. The psychological characteristics of the protagonists, the motivations that drive them, the reasons for their decisions are all left unexplained. "There are great matters at stake", says Catherine to Potyomkin (Paul McGann), but we are never told what they are. Such rationalizations as do emerge involve the anachronistic importation of late twentieth-century western liberal concerns into eighteenth-century Russian society.
Television drama need not seem cheap. This film does. There is a good cast, but the dialogue is empty and its delivery perfunctory, although Ian Richardson's Vorontsov is done well and Brian Blessed is surprisingly well-moduated (and exceptionally quiet) as Bestuzhev. Generally, the cast seems dispirited by the trite, thin, lines they are asked to utter. One hundred minutes spent watching Miss Zeta-Jones will always have its rewards. None the less, she is miscast. Most particularly, her voice is in its nature contemporary and middle class, with its very modern inability correctly to pronounce the letter 'r'; it is unsuitable to the role of an eighteenth century aristocrat and Empress. The set pieces are sparse and unconvincing and the direction humdrum.
The story and this cast deserved better than this slight spectacle.
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