Finally, the popular Russian-made TV series about the life of Catherine the Great is available in the U.S. for streaming on Amazon! The original title was Ekaterina, airing in 2014. The title on Amazon is Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great, and this name feels more accurate because it takes 3 out of 10 episodes just to get to Ekaterina’s marriage to Pyotr Fyodorovich. This show is all about the rise, alright. But the storytelling is worth it, even if the costuming isn’t always.
Before I selectively bitch about the costumes, let me heap praise on the acting, especially Yuliya Aug as Empress Elizaveta I, Pyotr’s aunt and predecessor. She is a real bad-ass! The historical figure was amazing — a solo female monarch a la England’s Queen Elizabeth I, except she gained the throne by in a military coup, where she allegedly put on armor, grabbed a cross, and told the army: “Whom do you want to serve: me, your natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?”
Though that happens well before the events of this TV series, Aug’s performance captures Elizaveta’s strength and political acumen, as well as her sensual side. She may have been unmarried, but she didn’t even pretend to be a virgin queen. She had a number of lovers, and in this show, her most well-known, the “Night Emperor,” Alexei Razumovsky (played by Aleksandr Lazarev) is her most trusted advisor and is seen in both court and bedroom scenes. This is particularly lovely as Aug and Lazarev are not the typical young, lithe types shown in intimate settings, and their romance is filmed as attractively as any other.
As for Ekaterina herself, she starts out as a idealistic, hopeful Princess Frederika, thinking she’ll fall in love with
Prince Charming Pyotr. It takes her stupefyingly long to realize that he’s a dweeb, more obsessed with his dogs and toy soldiers than anything else. Empress Elizaveta is a useful role model for Ekaterina (this is the name Frederika takes when she converts to Russian Orthodoxy), but they have a falling out soon after the younger woman finally marries the heir. And that’s when Ekaterina begins to assert herself, and the story’s focus slowly shifts from the older generation to the younger. If you’re into royal intrigue and political machinations, this series will satisfy, and not just in a soap-opera, bed-hopping way (yes, there’s some sex, but it’s not that cliche “I will use my body to get my way” thing; it’s just “a woman has needs, no big deal,” which, from all accounts, is what both Elizaveta and Ekaterina did).
While I’m about to nitpick the costumes — as we do here at Frock Flicks — I think it’s interesting to note this interchange in a Russian publication, AIF, with actress Marina Aleksandrova who plays Ekaterina (translation via Google):
AIF: “The Russian viewer, unlike the American and European, likes to look for inaccuracies in historical cinema, which in the West is accepted without any claims to call ‘costume dramas.’ How would you explain this?”
Marina Aleksandrova: “They say that, according to statistics, we are a more reading nation than the rest. I do not know who really counted this statistics and how reliable it is, but this assumption can not be ruled out either. In addition, we have an increased interest in history in principle, since it is rich. There is something to dig.
Here is this cultural code and love of history, perhaps, and make viewers to be more meticulous towards the adaptation of classics, to historical cinema. And we do not know how to let go of our emotions. We always want to find a horseshoe, I want to cuss someone (laughs). But it is much easier to criticize than to praise.”
I can’t tell if that means this series has more historically accurate content in Russian eyes (it does follow the basic historical events, IMO), but I’m amused at the cultural comparisons!
Costumes in Ekaterina
Well, the costumes are not as shitty as, say, The Tudors or gods forbid, Reign, however, the hair makes close to zero attempt at historical accuracy and there are more back-lacing gowns than not. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Wolf Hall as having the most historically accurate costumes on screen today, I’d say Ekaterina is a solid 6 with pretensions towards 7 or 8. The silhouette and the fit is good, especially on Yuliya Aug — OMG, she always looks amazing! It’s so easy to make a plus-size actress look bad in historical costume, but the costume designers Valentina Kameneva and Svetlana Moskvina did a fantastic job making sure Aug looks gorgeous in every scene. That’s some shit that does fit, baby!
However, I doubt she was a redhead — like most of these court women and men, the Empress probably powdered her hair because starting with Peter the Great, the Russian court was really into copying French fashions. Check out this portrait, below, where you can see the top of Empress Elizaveta’s head is powdered white but the curls around her neck are brownish or at least dark blonde.
Since I started into the hair, OK, WTF, why no wigs on any of the men except for the servants? Yeah, really, they did that. This is not the 19th century, when wig-wearing, liveried servants was an affectation to show how rich you were. It was fashionable for men to wear wigs in the 1740s-50s, when this series takes place. In fact, it had been fashionable for men to wear wigs for about a century, so really, the buzzcuts and floppy short hair on all the court dudes is ridiculous.
Pyotr too, he should be wearing a wig, and while yes, it’s accurate that he’s clueless and weird, he probably didn’t dress like a peasant all the time because, c’mon, he was still the heir to the empire. He doesn’t get a decent suit until he’s married.
OK, let’s look at the supposed star of the show, Ekaterina. The series starts in 1744, a year before her wedding, when Frederika is a relatively poor German princess, loitering around court with her mom, trying to get Pyotr to put a ring on it. Her clothes are rather plain, she doesn’t have any jewelry, and she wears her hair in a bun. Let’s look at what the historical young woman looked like about this time:
Seems she didn’t powder her hair, but she was just 16. See also, poor (for nobility) and German. At least her gowns were painted to impress.
In Ekaterina, the TV series, she does start out wearing dumpy dresses, I guess to look like the poor relation, but these outfits push that point a little far.
It’s a plot point for Ekaterina to get better clothes as the wedding approaches — Empress Elizaveta gives Ekaterina new gowns, while also bragging that she has 32,000 gowns herself. Which could be accurate, as the Empress had a reputation for extravagant clothing, never wearing the same gown twice, and the often changing gowns multiple times a day. #LifeGoals
A second season of Ekaterina played in Russia in early 2017, and this chronicled more of the Empress’ actual reign (you can find season 2 online, but I don’t know if the links are legit). Some screencaps are floating around, and I think maybe the costumes are a little better quality. The first season was watched by about 20% of the country when it first aired, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the second season got a higher budget.
Will you say da or nyet to Ekaterina?