Although the move to digital learning has led many to seek enrichment opportunities, it would be a mistake to take Hulu’s new original series, The Great, as a supplemental history lesson. I do, however, suggest watching this tongue-in-cheek take on Russia’s Catherine the Great just for fun. The story picks up with Catherine (Elle Fanning) marrying the emperor of Russia, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). The son of Peter the Great, this Peter wants to be a significant ruler, but he is petulant, mean, stupid, and frivolous. Catherine had romantic notions of what married life would be like and when she discovers that her new husband does not even live up to standards of basic decency, she is distraught. So when her noble-born maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox), suggests Catherine stage a coup and take the throne for herself, she thinks it is a good idea and gets to work.
The Great is raunchy, vulgar, stylish, and very funny. It quickly earns its TV-MA rating, but alongside the crass jokes there some really funny quips and thematic gags, winking toward historical truths while telling its own more woman-centered version of the story. In style, the series mixes lavish period pieces with a contemporary soundtrack. It reminds me of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but if that movie had not taken itself quite so seriously.
Catherine is depicted as both naive and very intelligent and Elle Fanning’s performance brings out the bookishness of the empress as well as her need to learn more about the ways of court if she is going to survive, let alone overthrow her husband. It completely makes sense that she quickly becomes friends with Marial, a bitter maid who was a lady of the court before her father ruined the family. Catherine’s sweetness tempers Marial’s anger, and together they make a fun pair to watch. Phoebe Fox does a wonderful job portraying Marial as a more seasoned and knowing accomplice without coming across as looking down on Catherine because of her naiveté. As Peter, Nicholas Hoult is so funny that even though I hate him, I also kind of like him.
Serious history buffs may find the series ridiculous (which it is), but for those looking for something romantic, clever, and playfully inappropriate, The Great is a fun watch. The first season runs for 10 episodes, streaming on Hulu.
Also on Hulu is the horror movie The Lodge. This film was released to limited theaters in early February. I eagerly awaited the wide release, but then the theaters were shutdown. So when it showed up on a streaming platform, I was both excited and terrified. I decided to watch the atmospheric horror flick during the day, just in case. I probably would have been fine in the dark.
In a similar vein to films such as Hereditary and The Babadook, The Lodge follows a family through a period of grief that moves into terror. At the movie’s start, Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aidan (Jaeden Martell) are uprooted by their parents’ divorce and then their mother’s (Alicia Silverstone) suicide. When their father, Richard (Richard Armitage) wants them to spend Christmas at the family’s mountain lodge with his new fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), the children are reluctant but agree. After Richard leaves the three of them alone for a couple of days while he attends to work, Grace’s mental health quickly deteriorates, putting the children in danger. You see, Grace is the only survivor of a religious cult’s mass suicide and the lodge brings back terrifying memories.
This story is no The Turning of the Screw. I did not think that the scares were particularly artful or the unraveling very compelling. The film relies on a lot of silence, snow, and creepy religious or dollhouse imagery to create an unsettling atmosphere but neither the story nor the horror go to the places the terrifying trailer promoted. Although the acting is top-notch, the movie was a big disappointment to me as a whole. Die-hard horror fans will still be interested, I’m sure, but the more casual viewer can safely skip this one.
If you’re looking for something a little lighter, over on Netflix you can stream Sweet Magnolias, a series about love, friendship, and self-reinvention. Clearly riffing on Steel Magnolias, this show has plenty of drama but lacks the humor and character development of the iconic film. Based on the romance novels by Sherryl Woods, Sweet Magnolias has the tone and style of a Lifetime or Hallmark series. The acting isn’t great and the writing is often stilted, but it makes fine television junk food if you are in the mood for some easy, but emotional watching.