March 2011: Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great is a remarkable movie. The title role of Catherine is played by a very young Catherine Zeta-Jones. Ian Richardson, Brian Blessed and of course Christoph Waltz also star in supporting roles. With this much talent you would expect a film to be remarkable. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable for its’ fine performances, gripping storyline and production values as much as it is the tabloidish-trash nature in which the film is steeped.
The film starts out ominously by the Tzarina of Russia trying to get her daughter-in-law, Catherine of Vienna, pregnant by a noble man. Her son, the crown prince, wants nothing to do with Catherine so the Tzarina takes matters in her own hands in order to ensure Catherine produces a “heir and a spare”. And thus begins the first of many graphic sex scenes in the film which illustrate how Catherine apparently used her feminine “charms” to gain, manipulate and control the men around her so to ensure her rise to the throne. It’s exploitative trash-history at its’ most revisionist, and plays into the lewd, bawdy legend of how Catherine died – only instead of a horse, she is with every man who she can stand to profit from.
Of course, there has to be some protest to all this gratuitous sex and political intrigue and thus enters in Christoph’s role, as a member of the royal guard in charge of protecting a member of Catherine’s husband’s noble house who is in exile. Christoph’s efforts see to it that the noble is freed and seeks to pose a challenge to Catherine’s rule, only for Christoph to find himself on the wrong end of the axe man’s blade for his trouble. And for us Christoph Waltz fans, that is where the interesting part of the movie ends.
With all the talent attached to this film, one would expect that it would have been a better quality production, with more drama and less titillation. Unfortunately it is woefully overacted in places, and Catherine gives her queen a flippancy and lightness that does not befit a great royal figure who has gone down in history as being a strong, fearless female leader. Catherine the queen seems hardly able to figure out such serious questions as what to wear, and where to rendezvous with her next lover, let alone strategic military and political decisions that impact her rule and people.
The plus of this debacle is that it is entirely in English – which is a rare treat for a movie featuring Christoph. It is worth viewing up until his part then switching off, unless you are enjoying the gratuitous and unnecessary sex scenes featuring Catherine and her mostly unattractive male lovers.