Young Catherine Review
Young Catherine is an American/British/Canadian mini-series which portrays the early years of Russia’s Catherine the Great.
In 1744 Sophia Fredericke, a princess of a small German principality is invited to the court of St. Petersburg as the potential bride for the next Russian heir. Sophia’s upbringing has been sheltered. She has a close relationship with her father, with whom she shares a devotion to their Lutheran faith. Her relationship with her mother is less warm. But it is with her mother that she travels to Russia. Her mother is well prepared for the political and social intrigues of the Russian court, but Sophia is less so.
She arrives as a naive innocent, eager to believe in a love match between herself and Peter, the Grand Duke and future emperor. Thanks to some advice from the handsome Grigory Orlov, Sophia is smart enough to ingratiate herself with Empress Elizabeth, Russia’s ruling sovereign. Sophia soon begins to experience the shattering of her illusions. It slowly becomes clear to her that her marriage and her role within the Russian monarchy is not made of fairy tales. Sophia must learn how to maneuver in an environment where she is viewed as at best, a pawn and at worst, a threat to others’ ambitions. She must decide if she is willing and how much she will sacrifice for the sake of a crown.
As Young Catherine is based on historical fact, the outcome of the series is already known by those who are familiar with history. But the draw of the story is in her journey. This series covers a span of about fifteen years, from Sophia’s departure from her home country to her seizure of power as Catherine the Great of Russia.
Catherine and Peter
Although the title declares this Catherine’s story, it is one she shares with her husband Peter. He gets nearly as much screen time as she does. I must confess that I found his story more interesting than hers. Peter is portrayed as childish and stupid. Both he and Catherine are viewed as pawns by Empress Elizabeth. However, Catherine is smart enough to be aware of this and to play the game of intrigue. As she states, “If I am going to play chess, it is not as a pawn.” Though Peter is also aware of his place, he has resigned himself to it. He has absolutely no interest in governance and views his position as a means to make himself comfortable. He chooses instead to indulge his few pleasures and hobbies.
Peter and Catherine are interesting contrasts. They are dual sides of the same coin. Both are born and bred Germans who have been chosen by the Empress to succeed her to the throne. While Catherine embraces her new identity, learns the language and converts to Orthodoxy, Peter resists. He hates everything about Russia and obviously venerates his German relative, the King of Prussia. But he knows he has no say over the course his life is taking.
Though it is based on historical fact, as with most films and series of this nature, there are liberties taken with the story. So, if you are looking for documentary type accuracy, then you will be disappointed. One of the main instances is the romanticized depiction of Catherine and Grigory Orlov. This series portrays their relationship as a love story spanning Sophia’s journey to Russia until her ascension to the throne. Though it is true that he was her lover, he was only one of many. However, many of the main events portrayed in the film are fairly true.
In many ways, this is very obviously a 90’s mini-series, but it is still impressive. The production values are fairly good. Young Catherine was filmed on location in Russia and it shows in the opulence of the interiors as well as the exterior architecture. Even though the costumes and settings are rich, the camera scope is generally narrow. This is a weakness of the series as it is a hindrance to conveying the grandness of the Russian court. At times it seems as if you are watching a stage production and that does take the viewer out of the story a bit.
Young Catherine also benefits from the expertise of skilled actors. Vanessa Redgrave plays Empress Elizabeth as a mercurial monarch. One moment she is affectionate, the next she is coldly dictatorial. Franco Nero does well in his rare appearances as the series’ only villain. I do think his role should have been expanded to bring a higher level of intensity and drama. Maximillian Schell also appears in a few brief scenes as Prussia’s Frederick the Great. He is, in a sense, the Empress’ nemesis in the game of political intrigue. Both wish to use Catherine as their pawn in their political maneuverings. Christopher Plummer is also a great pleasure to watch as the British ambassador, Sir Charles. Though he is not a historical figure, he serves a role in the series as Catherine’s great friend and unofficial mentor.
As previously stated, the Grand Duke Peter is one of the most interesting characters in Young Catherine. Reece Dinsdale plays him as extremely immature, but with an undercurrent of madness that eventually begins to reveal itself. Even though Peter is a despicable character, he is one which the viewer can empathize with a bit. It is obvious he is unfit for his position, nor does he want it. Yet it is forced on him and this brings out the worst in his nature. Dinsdale is great at bringing out both the innocence and depravity of Peter.
Young Catherine is one of Julia Ormond’s first roles and unfortunately, it shows. As much as I love Ormond in her other films, I do not think she has quite the skill needed to portray Catherine’s slow acquisition of knowledge and maturity. She plays the role of the innocent Sophia well, but as she begins to grow into her role as the eventual ruler of Russia, she falters. While she does show some strength and backbone, it is not enough to balance out the softness in her character. By the time Catherine seizes power, she has survived betrayal by nearly everyone and has learned to trust no one. But even though she eventually plots a coup to gain the throne, Catherine is still portrayed as being led by men and subservient to love. This does a great disservice to her character.
Overall, Young Catherine is an interesting look at history. Though it originally aired as a mini-series, I viewed it as a three-hour film with an intermission in the middle. The length is problematic as it is too long to hold interest as a film and not quite long enough for a true mini-series. There are places where the pace is too slow and the viewer is tempted to lose interest. Still, if you are a fan of historical reproductions, there is much to recommend this one.
Where to Watch: Young Catherine is available on DVD.
Content Note: As this was a made for television it is relatively tame. Although both Catherine and Peter have affairs, those scenes are mild. There is no nudity or language.
Photo Credits: CTV Television Network
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