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PBS Home Video presents
Catherine the Great (2006)

"It was either a matter of perishing because of my husband, or else of saving myself, the children, and perhaps even the state, from a disaster of his making."
- Catherine (Emily Bruni)

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: June 01, 2006

Stars: Emily Bruni
Director: Paul Burgess, John Paul Davidson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for sexual situations
Run Time: 01h:53m:14s
Release Date: May 23, 2006
UPC: 841887050494
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Blending dramatic re-enactments and readings, this two-part BBC-produced documentary on Russia's Catherine II, otherwise known as Catherine the Great, provides an introduction to one of Russia's greatest rulers, and a fascinating woman. I'll be the first to admit my knowledge of Catherine was limited essentially to the scurrilous propaganda about her death, which some of you may be aware of as well, involving Catherine's supposed fatal dalliance with a horse. Such ridiculous propaganda, begun by Western European rulers fearful of her power, clouds an otherwise remarkable life.

Catherine the Great started down the road to power at age 15, when she was summoned by the Empress Elizabeth to come to St. Petersburg. Born Sophia Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, she was a minor princess, but she came from good bloodlines and subesquently married Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne, in 1745. Peter possessed little in the way of leadership qualities, being somewhat juvenile in his behavior and his hero-worship of Prussia's Frederick the Great. Sophia, becoming Catherine when she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, managed to survive a politically dangerous court through a mix of wits, sex, and good luck. When Peter took the throne, he angered many by withdrawing Russian troops from their war against Prussia, who were led by Peter's erstwhile idol Frederick. Biding her time, Catherine took full advantage of her continuing alliances and friends by seizing the throne in 1762 with the help of her lover, Grigory Orlov, an influential army officer. Orlov's brother Alexey solidified the empress' throne by assassinating (so it is argued) Peter in the immediate aftermath.

Now in power, it remained to Catherine to further entrench herself. The second episode deals with her years in power, building Russia into one of Europe's great powers, both in terms of military light and cultural sophistication. Catherine courted Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Diderot, seeking to gain prestige for her fledgling court. She fought off challenges from within, like a rebellion that briefly threatened Moscow, and rubbed out potential threats such as Ivan VI, the actual heir to the throne after Peter's murder. With lover and probable secret husband Grigori Potemkin at her side for much of her reign, she proved to be one of Russia's greatest leaders. She was hardly a saint, or as committed to Enlightenment ideals as she liked to claim, but she left a lasting impression.

Catherine was good enough to write memoirs of her early days at the court, covering up to 1762. These writings provide plenty of material for the first part of this story, with Bruni performing readings of pertinent passages directly to the camera. This indicates the assumption that she is telling the truth, and allows Catherine to control the story in some ways. The effect felt to me like she knew we were watching her, in a sense. Re-creations of numerous events from her life are on hand, though Bruni does the bulk of the speaking. Her performance is fine; I enjoyed listening to her. On hand as well are the usual collection of scholars, weighing in on the events and personalities in the story. They generally hold similar views; if any controversies are present in the reign of Catherine, they aren't delved into much here.

Split into two parts as mentioned above, the first proved much more gripping than the second—not surprising given the knife edge upon which Catherine walked for much the period. The various intrigues and danger that were afoot make for compelling storytelling. Unfortunately, once Catherine settles into power in, things bog down as conflict ebbs away. There are battles, literal and figurative, to wage, but any real danger seems distant, and the drama suffers. The second half felt to me as much a catalog of accomplishments as anything else, rather than a story well told. As a whole, however, this is an interesting story, told cleanly and without too much adornment. If you have an interest in powerful women, here's one of the all-time greats.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in a letterboxed, 4:3 transfer, the image quality here is mediocre at best, with a shimmery, smeary picture that lacks solidity.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 track is unexceptional, but it doesn't need to do much, focused as the documentary is on dialogue. Debbie Wiseman's evocative score is otherwise the other main audio served here, and it sounds good.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Aside from chapter selection, and a PBS Web link, none.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An engaging introduction to the Russian empress' life, slickly put together and well-acted by Emily Bruni. The DVD is average at best.


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