Helen Mirren in "Catherine the Great". Picture: Supplied
Helen Mirren in "Catherine the Great". Picture: Supplied

Helen Mirren is spellbinding in 'Catherine the Great'

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Dec 12, 2019

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As the year-end fatigue makes its presence felt, many are counting down the days to when they get to switch off and enjoy the holidays. 

And the one thing they can bank on (especially with budgets strained as bonuses are harder to come by in these tough fiscal times) is great entertainment from the comfort of home. Between all the different streaming options, proliferation of Hallmark Christmas movies and DStv Catch Up shows, boredom is highly unlikely. 

That said, my latest fixation on the small screen is "Catherine the Great" on BBC First. 

That the inimitable Helen Mirren is cast as the Empress of Russia had a lot to do with me tuning in. I mean, this is Mirren, after all. And at 74, she continues to blow fans away with a superlative depiction of an iconic figure, not that we had any doubts of her ability to do so. 

The four-part mini-series is loosely based on Empress Catherine, focusing on her reign circa 1764 until her death two years later. 

At the start, she chastises a soldier by saying: “It’s a mistake to ask rich people for money. How do you think they got rich? By giving it away?”

In fact, throughout the episode, she spews out quotes that hold plenty of wisdom and is dripping with unapologetic sarcasm. 

“Do you know what I hold in my hand? Absolute power,” she uttered in another scene with unmistakable pride, bordering on cockiness.

Entertained, I certainly was by episode one. In fact, I wished I could watch the entire series in one go. It has a delicious mix of drama, seduction and treachery. 

With Catherine, you are either with her or against her. If it is the latter, you won’t be around long enough to challenge her. Having come into power having staged a coup d’état against her husband Peter III, she is wary of those in her inner circle. 

Not one to mince her words, Catherine leaves the men around her quivering either from fear or anger. She is resented by some and celebrated for her pioneering vision by others. 

While aware of her son’s blatant resentment towards her, Catherine is cunning in her interactions with him. She keeps him close enough yet still far away from the politics of Russia. 

As much as she can come across as austere and tyrannical, she has a great sense of humour, bestows heartfelt loyalty to those who have her best interests at heart and has an admirably progressive way of thinking. Did I mention how utterly mesmerising Mirren is in this role? Aside from the plethora of steamy sex scenes, this series is wonderfully written, cast and directed. 

"Catherine the Great" airs on BBC First (DStv channel 119) on Monday at 8pm. 

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