A&E Home Video presents
Catherine the Great (1995)
ĺ─˙I am about to seize the throne of Russia....What on earth shall I wear?ĺ─¨- Catherine (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
Stars: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul McGann, Ian Richardson, Brian Blessed
Other Stars: Craig McLachlan, Hannes Jaenicke, Jeanne Moreau, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif, John Rhys Davies
Director: Marvin J. Chomsky
Manufacturer: Crush Digital Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sexual situations, sexual references)
Run Time: 01h:34m:07s
Release Date: 2001-02-27
DVD ReviewThis TV movie, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones before she hit the big time, is somewhat of an odd duck. It does pay decent attention to historical details and the broad outlines, but it is also closely tied up with romantic intrigue to the point of being almost a trashy romance novel.
We first see Catherine (Zeta-Jones) as the wife of Russian Grand Duke Peter (Hannes Jaenicke). His German sympathies are in conflict with the desire for European hegemony of the Empress Elizabeth (Jeanne Moreau). The Russian chancellor, Bestuzhev (Brian Blessed), makes an alliance with Catherine that she will support his war efforts in exchange for Catherineĺ─˘s succession as czarina in her own right, without Peter. When she succeeds to the throne, we see Catherineĺ─˘s desire for a liberalized Russia cast aside in reaction to a peasantsĺ─˘ revolt led by one Pugachev. Her hot and cold romance with an army officer, Potemkin, complicates this political transition.
Zeta-Jones doesnĺ─˘t quite have the charisma to pull off the role of Catherine the Great; she is not aided by the script which gives her howlers such as the quotation above. From the costuming, it seems as if they thought that the shortcomings of her performance could be disregarded by means of her overemphasized decolletage. Brian Blessed and Ian Richardson are excellent as the battling chancellors, with Blessed acting the part of the big Russian bear and Richardson as the prim representative of the monied classes. Jeanne Moreau does a creditable job with the old Empress, driven to distraction by the inability of Peter to father an heir. Mel Ferrer has absolutely nothing to do and barely a line of dialogue; Omar Sharif as the old Empressĺ─˘ lover, Razumovsky, also is barely on the screen at all.
The historical details seem to be rather accurate from what I know; Catherine was indeed a correspondent of Voltaire and Diderot, as is mentioned in the film, and she also wanted to have a liberalization of the government after the manner of Montesquieu, whom she quotes. The Pugachev rebellion is probably overdramatized but is at least based in its broad strokes upon reality.
Production values are excellent throughout, in both sets and costumes. The battle sequences are often confused, making the viewer disoriented as to who is attacking whom. A gang of Cossacks suddenly appears out of nowhere and attacks the Russian troops and then all is well, but the whole episode is quite unexplained. The lack of clarity is compounded by a failure to use character names except when the character is not present, such that the viewer has no idea who exactly is being referred to.
The romantic entanglements (such as Catherineĺ─˘s affair with Saltykov (Craig McLachlan), engineered by the Empress Elizabeth) often get in the way of the story, but were no doubt deemed essential to hold the attention of those less interested in history. At the same time, there is little explanation given for Catherineĺ─˘s popularity in and support by the Army, making her ascension to the throne over her husband possible, besides her sleeping with Captain Potemkin. The ending leaves things rather unresolved with Potemkin in an unsatisfactory manner, which is not likely to appeal to romance fans.
In all, a decent but less-than-great attempt at a television biopic.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B
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Image Transfer Review: The image suffers from some mild artifacting and a fair amount of grain. Quite a number of scenes have an odd shimmering which distracts the viewer from the picture. Color is decent, and black levels are very good indeed for a television program. Fleshtones at times take on a rather reddish hue, though this may be an intentional attempt to mimic candlelight.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The only audio track is a 2.0 Dolby Surround track. The surrounds are limited almost completely to music. Dialogue is very much center-oriented, with limited directionality of any kind. Hiss and noise are at low enough levels that they will not prove to be a distraction to most listeners.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Extras Review: The sole extras are one-screen bios and relatively complete filmographies for Zeta-Jones and Sharif. Chaptering is quite inadequate. The timing of 100 minutes shown on the keepcase is nearly six minutes too generous.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsA more or less historically accurate portrayal of the great Russian Czarina, with an excellent cast in support of Zeta-Jones, who is not quite up to the title role. The video and audio are passable for a TV movie, but nothing more. Extras are practically nil.
Mark Zimmer 2001-02-22