Young Catherine (1991)

Here is one of those cheats I mentioned.  “Young Catherine” was originally on a cable network, TNT, which is not a subscription channel.  However, this piece behaves just like its network cousins and a few year earlier would no doubt have popped up on one of them.

This is the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, one of the most notorious of the Romanovs (though she wasn’t a Romanov and, most likely, neither were her children, but the Romanovs kept that quiet) and the perfect subject matter for an opulent costume piece/historical drama.  By 1991, wiser heads were prevailing and the opulence of filming her complete life would have been so expensive, not to mention incredibly long, so it was an intelligent decision to stick with just one section of her life.  In capable hands here, it allows for a thrilling piece, full of historical fun plus dashes of romance and adventure that marked the great miniseries of the previous 15 or so years.

We get a brief preview of Catherine’s most notorious moment over the credits, but that’s just a tease.  We have to start from the beginning.  Or at least the middle of the beginning, since Catherine’s pre-Russia years were uneventful. 

We start in 1744 in a small principality in Germany.  Catherine (Julia Ormond, a French actress, but not a terrible stretch since the official court language was French by this point) is busy at her lessons when a delegation from Russia arrives.  Actually, at this point, she is still Sophie, a Protestant.  Sophie and her mother have been commanded to attend the Empress Elizabeth as Sophie has been judged a possible bride for the heir. 

Off her parents go to Frederick the Great (Maximilian Schell, who, only a few years earlier, had played Peter the Great), aging and eccentric, but luckily we don’t have to worry about the messiness of his personal life.  Maximilian tells Sophie’s mother how to manage Russian politics, especially with the rest of Europe lining up against his country.  Her mother Princess Johanna (Marthe Keller) certainly understands.  It’s only her father is sad to let her go, knowing he will most likely never see her again.

On the cold winter journey to Russia, Sophie shows the first signs of the ambition which will label her.  She wants power of her own.  No expense is spared Sophie’s entrance into St. Petersburg, the wealthiest European court at the time.  Empress Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) is charmed by Sophie and even gives her a large cross as the assembled courtiers applaud.  All except Count Vorontsov (Franco Nero), who wants a Polish princess on the thrown.  Sophie then has her first dinner with Grand Duke Peter (Reece Dinsdale).  Known to history as a bit mentally-challenged who was fascinated by war and games, he thinks of Sophie as a friend rather than a potential mate.  He has an entire retinue of fake soldiers and plays battle games based on Frederick the Great’s battles.  It’s immediately clear Sophie is unimpressed by his child-like attitude. 

Empress Elizabeth insists that Sophie become a Russian Orthodox and renamed because she doesn’t like Sophie.  Sophie is hesitant, but don’t forget that ambition lurking in the back of her mind.  Initially, she finds the idea of idolatry in the Orthodox church problematic, but a kindly priest’s explanation of the differences between the faiths starts to win her over (good writing has a tendency to do that). 

Sophie is lucky to meet Sir Charles Williams (Christopher Plummer in a hysterical wig), the English Ambassador.  He’s an amusing man, putting her immediately at ease.  “He [the Grand Duke Peter] could not rule a straight line, let alone an empire” and other such witty jokes make him Sophie’s first friend in Russia. 

Elizabeth accepts Sophie’s conversion to Orthodoxy, but while she’s away on a pilgrimage, Count Vorontsov starts poisoning her to get her out of the way, par for the course in Russian history.  Catherine will do far worse in her time!  Her mother is completely clueless as to what is happening, but Count Orlov (Mark Frankel), who fell in love with Sophie as he brought her to Russia, rushes to Elizabeth to tell her of the illness.  Everyone else had avoided telling her.  She rushes to Sophie and realizes she’s being poisoned, insisting on sleeping in her room and tasting her food to guard against it. 

However, Elizabeth, always a hothead, finds out Princess Johanna has been sending reports to Frederick the Great and in a huge opus of overacting (which is okay here, because she’s Empress of Russia and historically accurate), banishes Johanna.  She is henceforth Catherine and officially Russian Orthodox.  Her betrothed is still officially a bumbling half-wit.  “You’ve still got me,” he says to Catherine upon her mother’s banishment.  There’s something almost cute about his idiocy, because it is truly innocent. 

When Peter is stricken with “the small pox,” Catherine is friendless, save Sir Charles.  But, he survives, shockingly ugly and abhorrent to Catherine.  Peter has been seriously embittered by the experience, vowing to make Russia and Catherine feel his wrath.  He becomes truly demented, at one point holding a rat over a candle until it howls itself to death.  The head priest voices the same sentiments as Sir Charles, that she needs to tough it out because Russia is counting on her to rule when Peter ascends the throne. 

Catherine and Peter are married, and not one person in the church looks happy.  Then comes the honeymoon.  Peter gets very drunk and brings his fake regiment to watch.  Catherine shows her mettle and dismisses them.  Peter has fallen asleep anyway.  The film’s writing is at its best when showing this curious relationship.  He cuts his finger and she tenderly helps him, but in a second he snaps and slaps her. 

She’s also becoming quite the politician, cutting the Prussian Ambassador down.  “If I’m going to play chess, it’s not going to be as a pawn.”  “As a queen?” her lady-in-waiting asks as Catherine smiles.  Okay, that’s not a great line, rather cliche, but it shows that Catherine is beginning to understand.

Elizabeth finds out that after two years, Catherine is still a virgin and posts Orlov, of all people as sentry.  That’s a sure way to get her pregnant if Catherine and Grigory can find a way.  That presents itself when her female guard, Countess Maria, suggests taking a lover.  Sir Charles suggests the Empress is behind that idea.  But, he agrees with the idea and Catherine says she already has one in mind.

“You’re offering to fulfill my wildest dreams,” Orlov tells him.  The casting if Mark Frankel is ideal as he is impossibly handsome, beefy and regal, as opposed to the wimp playing Peter.  It makes us root for them to be an actual couple, not for him to be just a “stud,” as he puts it.  “I want you to teach me everything you know,” Catherine says, heavy irony for a woman all of Europe assumed to be a hedonistic slut until the day she died. 

When she tells Sir Charles, he finds out that Peter cannot have sex because his penis is deformed.  Though Peter hates blood, they both know Peter has to have the operation and must consummate the marriage.  Orlov arranges it and the operation takes a mere moment.  They ask him what to tell Peter when he wakes up and the answer is a hoot: tell him that during a game of size comparison and he cut it on a piece of glass…and tell him he won.  Now it’s up to Catherine to find a way to get it to work! 

Once again, the writing is sensational in how it treats Catherine here.  Though it happened in real life, her way of getting in with Peter is to dress up as a soldier.  He’s over the moon and immediately wants her.  Lesser writing would have kept her a simpering innocent.  This Catherine gets bolder by the day. 

Grigory is posted to Riga as a promotion, saying that his brothers are there for her if she needs anything.  History tells she needed quite a few of them.  Catherine gives birth to Paul and Elizabeth waltzes off with the boy, the nurses and everything but the stained sheets.  The problem now is that Elizabeth has turned against her; she only ever wanted an heir.  This is Vanessa Redgrave at her most imperious.  Paul finally gets his own regiment and all but has an orgasm the first time he sees it.  Catherine is only allowed to see Paul once or twice a year!  But, as solace, she has become very popular with the people and Sir Charles tells her even King George would provide assistance, not to mention how much the army loves her.

Not happy about events is Frederick the Great, who considers himself a man of peace (funny, everyone else in the world considered him the greatest warmonger of his generation).  He has decided to mobilize for war against the rest of Europe, and Catherine has to be very careful of whom to trust in Russia as Europe rattles sabers.

Closer to home, Catherine is finding Peter increasingly mad.  Vorontsov plays him like a puppet, installing a sexually rapacious mistress in his bed and pushing an alliance with his hero Frederick the Great.  Peter is just idiotic enough to believe he would somehow emerge from that victorious and in control.  These events also force Sir Charles home, as England and Prussia are allies.  Before leaving, he tells Catherine she is the one great hope for Russia, to “bring it out of the dark ages” not only with military might, but also with culture and the arts, of which Russia had precious little to compete with Western Europe. 

The last remaining piece falls into place when Grigory returns to St. Petersburg.  The chemistry between Julia Ormond and Mark Frankel is palpable, and though Catherine was known to be an opportunist when it came to men, it seems her love for Grigory was genuine (and necessary, which didn’t hurt).

All plans are about to be undermined when Elizabeth is made aware (via Vorontsov) of Catherine’s letters, but Catherine goes to the dying Empress and makes a plea for her life, saying she’s worried for Elizabeth’s life should Russia be attacked, not for personal glory.  In a master stroke, she even begs to be sent back to her parents.  Elizabeth takes Catherine’s side, and the gleam in Vanessa Redgrave’s eye shows that Elizabeth knows the only hope for Russia after her death is Catherine, not Peter and those pushing him. 

With Frederick the Great on the battlefield, Elizabeth is dying.  “The old bitch is taking her time,” Peter snaps.  Peter is too stupid to show much affection for Elizabeth, but Catherine has become too experienced a politician to play it any other way than concerned family member.  Unfortunately for Vanessa, she is forced to play a dying scene that is laughable, one of those “I’m talking one minute then paralyzed the next as I collapse on the pillow, eyes open” things. 

Peter has decided to actually try to rule.  He has Catherine stricken from all records and even wears the uniform of Frederick, which even Vorontsov finds alarming considering the war.  Peter demands that the army, at the gates of Berlin, be pulled back, which makes no logical sense for the war and now even Vorontsov knows Peter’s rule will be untenable.  When Peter declares no one is allowed to mourn for his aunt, there is hardly anyone left who wants him in power. 

Catherine has around her enough guards, the church, Grigory and a power symbol in herself.  They all urge her to use these facts to seize power.  Events move at a very brisk pace in this part of the movie, as they did in real life, and the sense of adventure is dynamite.  This is TV at its finest, able to grab the viewer with the same force as any high-budget movie (although commercials would have, of course, dulled the effect somewhat). 

In one of her most politically effective maneuvers, Catherine puts on the uniform of her soldiers, immediately making herself one of them, and then whips them into a frenzy as she recounts Peter’s ongoing destruction of “the true Russia.”  It’s one of those speeches John Wayne would have said and had an entire movie theater cheering, with the music swelling to gigantic proportions.  On her way to the palace, she has Grigory freed so he can be with her at her triumphant moment. 

Encountering a force of Vorontsov’s men, Catherine is bolder than ever, riding between the garrison’s and telling anyone who has the guts to fire on their Empress to do so.  Vorontsov orders them to fire, but they all lay down their arms and refuse.  To keep the people on her side, Catherine must remain a presence in St. Petersburg, merely showing up on the balcony with Paul.  Peter’s only hope is Frederick the Great.  “We must move today.  We must cave the monster, but no harm must come to him.  I will not start my reign with the blood of my husband,” she tells her team.  She’s learned politics in a few short years that will keep her on the throne until her death. 

It’s decided by her followers that Peter must be killed, against her express orders, though she is to know nothing of it.  Grigory insists he has to do it because of his relationship with Catherine.  He tells her what he’s done, knowing full well that it may mean his own death.  After a tearful goodbye, he leaves her (for now).  Frederick the Great refuses to help the anti-Catherine faction and Catherine has a clear path to be crowned Empress in her own right.  A minor German princess is now the ruler of all the Russias. 

I may be somewhat biased in favor of Catherine the Great as I find her one of history’s most fascinating rulers, but that doesn’t mean I cannot separate the woman from the story.  Luckily, this time, I did not have to.  The story is every bit as thrilling as the real-life events.  Dripping with taste and exactitude, “Young Catherine” is a rare example of the miniseries in decline but still able to grip.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

One Comment to “Young Catherine (1991)”

  1. Anonymous 1 April 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    exactly the kind of program that i love. I am in to anything historical. The casting was perfect, costumes divine, everything was just a-one.enjoyed every minute of this story.


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