TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tonight HBO premieres a new four-part miniseries called "Catherine The Great" starring Helen Mirren as the 18th century Russian empress. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: For actress Helen Mirren, playing royalty is nothing new. She won an Emmy for playing Queen Elizabeth I in a previous HBO miniseries, she won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II, and in 1981, closer to the start of her career, she starred in one of the best of TV's Shakespeare plays, stealing the show in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as Titania, queen of the fairies. But Helen Mirren qualifies as acting royalty even when she's not acting royally. The role which may be her most famous and impressive of all was playing detective Jane Tennison in a series of "Prime Suspect" miniseries for PBS. Hers was a troubled character, but a shrewd one.
She was an antihero before that became fashionable on TV, and her riveting skills at being simultaneously abrasive and compelling are also in full view in this new HBO drama as she takes on the title role in Catherine the Great. After all, here's a woman who took the throne from her husband, filled her court with a string of lovers and held on to power in Russia for more than 30 years at a time when both France and America were undergoing major revolutions.
This "Catherine The Great" is directed by Philip Martin, who directed Mirren in the most recent "Prime Suspect" installment and who also directed several episodes of "The Crown." He and the writer, Nigel Williams, depend greatly on their leading lady to carry the narrative and the drama, which she does with ease.
Here she is as the Russian empress walking the grounds of the palace with her just-coming-of-age son Paul, played by Joseph Quinn. They come upon her minister and confidante, played by Rory Kinnear, who was recently seen in another HBO miniseries, "Years And Years." She accuses them of talking to each other too often, and as the empress handles and dismisses her son, then turns on her minister, the range of Mirren's emotions are evident in this single scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATHERINE THE GREAT")
HELEN MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) You two are always in each other's company. Are you hatching some conspiracy?
JOSEPH QUINN: (As Prince Paul) We were not. We were...
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) Not, not, oh, not, not, not, not - not what?
QUINN: (As Prince Paul) I...
RORY KINNEAR: (As Minister Panin) I think our conversations may have touched on the fact that, at certain stages, some thought that when Paul reached his majority, perhaps he might...
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) Yes? Might, might - might what?
KINNEAR: (As Minister Panin) Many people had envisaged, Your Majesty, that you would act as a regent until Paul attend his majority, after which he would...
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) Yes?
QUINN: (As Minister Panin) ...Well, take more responsibility, Your Majesty.
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) So many people want the Russian throne. They die trying to get it, and sometimes, they die trying to hang onto it. People will tell you lies about what you are, Paul, but remember, you are the son of Peter III. You are the heir to the Russian throne one day. Never forget that. Now, you've reached your majority. I think you should get married.
QUINN: (As Prince Paul) Yes, mother.
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) Why don't you run along and think about beautiful women? Has he been speaking with the army? How much does he know about what's going on (unintelligible)?
KINNEAR: (As Minister Panin) Nothing. I swear it, your majesty.
MIRREN: (As Catherine the Great) Never talk about the succession or about power-sharing. Do you understand me?
KINNEAR: (As Minister Panin) Yes, your majesty.
BIANCULLI: Just as neither of those characters is close to standing up to the queen, few of the actors, except for Kinnear and another co-star, Jason Clarke, match Helen Mirren at all. The historically based story told here, with all the court intrigue and scandals and betrayals, is interesting, and Mirren is wonderful. But other than that - and other than her - this "Catherine The Great" is more noteworthy for its lavish costumes and scenery. No other roles are really fleshed out, and the script amounts to little more than a historical greatest hits, bouncing from well-known event to event.
If you want a truly great drama about the last female ruler of Russia, stick with the original - Marlene Dietrich in the surprisingly decadent, still amazing 1934 film "The Scarlet Empress." By comparison, this new HBO miniseries, except for an excellent star turn by Helen Mirren, is more like "Catherine The OK."
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed HBO miniseries "Catherine The Great," which begins tonight. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR we'll talk about the U.S. pullout of the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria and what it means for the region with The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly. She's been covering the Syrian civil war since it started in 2011. She's in the U.S. to receive an award for courage in journalism. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS COSTELLO & BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS COSTELLO & BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.