‘Catherine the Great’: Helen Mirren Plays a Real-Life Empress in HBO Miniseries Inspired by True Events

Fans of historical dramas about royalty have a new series to add to their to-watch list. The HBO miniseries Catherine the Great takes a look at one of the most powerful and longest-ruling leaders of Russia in the country’s history.

Helen Mirren plays Catherine, a savvy Prussian royal who married the heir to the Russian throne in 1745 when she was 16 years old. Seventeen years later she overthrew her husband Peter III in a palace coup. (She probably had him murdered shortly thereafter.) She ruled for the next 34 years. 

‘Catherine the Great’ focuses on the later years of Catherine’s life 

Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great
Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great | Hal Shinnie/HBO

The four-part limited series, which is produced in association with Sky, focuses on the later part of Catherine’s reign, which began in 1762 and ended in 1796. Much screen time is given to Catherine’s relationship with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke). Potemkin was a military leader with whom the empress had a long affair beginning in 1774. At the same time, Catherine is fighting off challenges to her crown and waging war against the Ottoman Empire. She is also working to expand the boundaries of the Russian Empire. 

How historically accurate is ‘Catherine the Great’? 

Like pretty much all historical TV shows and films, Catherine the Great takes some liberties in terms of storytelling. Some changes are made to the historical timeline, for example. And in the series her relationship with Potemkin lasts much longer than it did in real life. (There’s also no evidence that Potemkin and Catherine married in secret, as the show suggests.) 

But the series is rooted in fact. Mirren has said that she hoped to offer a more nuanced take on the ruler. These days Catherine may be best remembered for her supposedly scandalous affairs (and unsubstantiated rumors about her sexual preferences) than her political leadership. 

“I want to readjust her standing in history, to right the wrongs of how she is represented in the history books,” Mirren told the Evening Standard. “The price Catherine has paid for being a successful ruler … to fight the Ottoman Empire, to build, to expand, to keep Europe in its place, to quash revolutions … has been brutal.”

“She’s been branded a nymphomaniac who consorted with her horse, a despicable calumny propagated by her monstrous son, Paul,” the Oscar-winning actress added. “Historians have attacked her. How do they do it? The only way they can: through her sexuality.”

Mirren read Catherine’s letters to get a better understanding of the empress

Mirren researched Catherine’s life and reign in order to prepare for the role. And she had a first-hand account to turn to for guidance in crafting her version of the empress. 

‘[T]he most rounded understanding of her, I gleaned from her letters,” the actress told the paper. “It is a miracle in fact that the letters survive and there are volumes of them to Potemkin, Voltaire, friends, ambassadors, Paul her son, and to her husband before he was murdered.”

“She was clever, she had pragmatism and really understood the price you have to pay,” Mirren went on to say. She added: “Catherine is a survivor in this dangerous role, and succeeds in becoming the most powerful woman in Russia … she outmaneuvered them all.” 

Catherine the Great premieres Monday, October 21, at 10/9c on HBO.

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