IR Television Review: CATHERINE THE GREAT [HBO]

The last Russian woman of power changed the way the game was played. But in an era of patriarchy she pushed against the status quo while still maintaining a healthy appetite which in many circles. This is what has survived all the rumors oddly enough. In a day and age when Crimea has come under the aspect of the news again in terms of Russian perception as an important port city what Catherine The Great’s dexterity and at times forthrightness reflects in her early Ideas of giving up serfdom are quite forward thinking. While Alexander’s tendency plays into  the thrust of his grandmother’s ultimate plan, it is her life and the way she lived it that is dynamic but also fallible. The details of her former husband that met his fate for her to assume the throne is still mysterious but how she governs is not. This is the effective perspective of “Catherine The Great” which both administers her strengths but also her faults.

Helen Mirren, as she has done with many characters over the years, understands the aspect of women in power but also the tricks of ambiguity and antiquity and the problems it creates. As an aging actress this has provided her most telling performance perhaps since “The Queen”. She has had fun playing others but the aspect of loss and gain here but also a more mature relationship speaks to the essence of trust versus jealousy. This is something that completed encompasses her relationship with Potemkin whom she first becomes enamored with many years earlier as the mini-series seems to span a good 15-20 years.

Jason Clarke gives an interesting portrayal of Potemkin. The problem is that as the younger version where his young features currently still show, the character never fully vanishes. It is only as he grows more grizzled halfway through the miniseries that his characterization truly becomes rich. The mustache and gravelly deliver become more natural. There is a hurt but also a love in his devotion to Catherine despite his want to be on the battlefield versus being at the palace with Catherine. In a short span when he brings Crimea to her feet and she witnesses it as her domain, it becomes a very intimate story wide in its scope but personal in its impact.

There are other supporting characters that key into the proceedings. Richard Roxburgh plays one of her early lovers who basically pushes against her rule. He disappears in a haze which is never fully specific. Catherine’s Minister Of War Olaf who helped put her in power is an interesting dichotomy as his loyalty shifts and the story moves forward. The pathetic part of the story is Catherine’s son Paul who simply reminds Catherine of the err of his father’s ways, not necessarily that he would be a bad leader but Catherine senses something off in him, that gut instinct that tells her something her advisers can’t. The epilogue proves that.

Politics aside “Catherine The Great” is also an interesting diatribe in showing the essence of sexuality and the reality of power without pretense. One of the aspects that does reflect is the absence of Russian accents or even Russian actors. Granted this is a miniseries made by Sky and BBC in congruence with HBO but unless one was told it was Russia and Catherine The Great, it could quite frankly be any monarchy save for the performances of Mirren and Clarke.

“Catherine The Great” has the lushness and texture of most HBO series with a leading lady destined to receive said due praises for her work. But at its heart, it is a love story, power ratcheting though that it may be, that is engaging but also exceptional to the status quo that human nature does not change.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR BD Review: SERENITY [Aviron/Universal Studios Home Entertainment]

When “Serenity” was released earlier in the year, the essence of the cast and what seemed to be a noir structure gave it definite want-to-see possibility. Matthew McConaughey’s choices are always divisive but he has a certain idea of almost existential progression in most of his roles. The idea for example of making “Sea of Trees” or “Free State Of Jones” perceives to this thematic structure of his work. This film is no different though its blend of high concept and locale might be too much for some viewers to take or give patience to. With a director like Steven Knight, known for “Peaky Blinders”, the blend does have possibility but this is not Christopher Nolan or “Interstellar” for that matter. The comparison obviously moves in play since Anne Hathaway is a catalyst of sorts here as well as she was in that previous movie though in a different structure. The vamp structure she employs here might be a function of not just the plot but the rules that are set forth in the narrative. This blend of what motivates characters and indeed what their ultimate goals are is an interesting quandary within the story.

The film was shot on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off of South Africa so the locale has an otherworldly quality in that the viewer almost can’t place where it is. Many of the characters are caricatures in this way but again that is a function of the plot without giving anything away. In selling a movie, subtlety and the way a film unfolds is much more criticized than ever before which made this specific release even tougher.

What “Serenity” does have is almost an 80s genre twist while similarly on a restrictive budget but with decent or at least recognizable stars. Diane Lane plays a character that is almost a piggy bank at times for McConuaghney’s Dell. Again when it all is said and done…her character makes sense within the structure even if it is light. Dijmon Honsou who also starred with McConaughey in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” also plays a structural part in the idea. He becomes a voice of reason but also one that unbalances the motivation. Again a specific notion of the plot. Even Jason Clarke as the baddie per se, has a specific arch that is meant as a commentary on what the underlying structure of the story actually is.

Towards the end, the breakdown of exposition might have been too much for audiences to handle because, while it is an intriguing idea, the dialogue, even though it is meant to be stilted at times, overplays its idea. The exposition, in addition, tries too hard even though there are holes in motivation and plot which are too glaring to ignore. Also, some of the sequences and the imagery, especially the jump cuts and McConaughey’s venture through water, may be symbolic but mostly function flat. In terms of technical, the transfer brings out the beauty of the location but the slipshod nature of some of the visual effects takes away from some of the power certain sequences could have had. There are no additional material on the disc, so the movie simply functions on its possibilities which may in time form an idea of one of those genre movies that tried but didn’t quite connect. However it might be one that will be revisited in years to come.

C+

By Tim Wassberg