In this week’s column Lynden Barber reviews comedies The Great and Catastrophe, as well as a new adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and French claymation film My Life as a Zucchini.

The Great, Stan
The Great
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. Photo © Ollie Upton

The Great, a fanciful, visually splendid and viciously dark new comedy about Catherine the Great, is a blast. To hell with humourless complaints about its cheeky historical inaccuracies. I love it. Adore it. Well, the two 50-minutes episodes seen so far.

Let me count the ways. For a start, the two lead performances are exceptionally good, particularly Elle Fanning as the idealistic and highly literate young European aristocrat married off to the young and ignorant Russian Prince (later Emperor) Peter – a cold-eyed Nicholas Hoult doing narcissistic personality disorder classes. It’s safe to say the parallels between the ego-maniacal Peter and a certain contemporary American leader are probably deliberate.

Fanning meanwhile has a face that can illustrate fast changing emotions readily, can credibly show an iron will and her British accent (wisely used for all the characters rather than distracting viewers with comical Russian-speak) is spot on.

Visually the series is one of the most sumptuous seen on a TV screen since The Crown, with costumes, palaces and cinematography to induce gasps. Of particular note are the deep focus compositions that allow us to drink in the sublime detail of a palace corridor or anteroom, all the way from the foreground to the distant rear.

The tone here though is very different to that British look at royalty. This series is delightfully biting. Cynical and bleakly off-hand. Positively revelling in its anachronistic use of 21st century attitudes and idioms. Think Black Adder with 200 times the budget. Think Peter Greenaway’s 1982 intellectually sardonic wig-fest, The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Even better, think 2018’s The Favourite, which won Olivia Colman a well-deserved Oscar for playing Queen Mary, and whose Australian co-screenwriter, Tony McNamara, has the chief writing credit here, having based the screenplay on his 2008 Sydney Theatre Company play.

McNamara’s dominant modes are absurdity and satire, but he also knows the importance of taking the characters’ emotions seriously at key moments, particularly those of the wily yet frequently shocked and deeply unhappy Catherine, so that we care about the outcomes of the various intrigues. It’s a tall order to hit that sweet spot where send-up and genuine emotion are in a state of careful balance, and The Great gets it almost entirely right.

Yet while amusing grotesqueries are liberally strewn, near the end of episode two things go too far when, at a banquet to celebrate victory over Sweden in battle, Peter orders the severed heads of fallen enemy soldiers to be delivered on plates to the diners, who are required to remove the eyes. Much more sensationalism in this vein might have audiences reaching for the remote with one hand as they grab the sick bag with the other. Maybe it won’t happen. I remain hopeful.

Catastrophe, ABC iView

As we’re in a comical mood, it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the return of the spirited British Channel 4 romantic comedy Catastrophe to ABC free to air, with earlier Season Three episodes on ABC iView. I started thinking I’d seen the preceding Season Two but quickly realised I’d missed it somewhere along the line. Luckily the updated scenario is quickly sketched in for latecomers and those with a lousy memory.

The original 2015 season was based around a pregnancy resulting from the quick fling of two young adults in London while Rob (Rob Delaney), an American, was visiting on business. The mother (Irish livewire Sharon Horgan) wanted to keep the baby and both agreed he should relocate from the States to share the parenting and build a relationship. Naturally this enterprise was fraught with tension, which Horgan and Delaney exploited with comic aplomb that owed much to the fast-talking of classic 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy.

Season Three finds them now with two children. In part it charts Rob’s struggles to get back in the job market after a long period raising the kids from home. Another thread is built around suspicions of unfaithfulness.

Horgan and Delaney have written all three seasons (and a fourth completed in 2019), which helps explain why they’re so good on-screen together. They implicitly understand the characters and their dilemmas. Added to that, the performances seem to reflect a remarkable personal chemistry – though at this stage of the fictional relationship, it’s the variety that’s often worn down by the compromises of married life.

High Fidelity, ABC iView
Zoë Kravitz in High Fidelity

I felt let down by High Fidelity, another comedy series on ABC TV and iView. This is the second screen adaptation of Nick Hornby’s celebrated novel of that name about an anal-retentive record shop owner trying to come to terms with his relationship failures by systematically tracking down his ex-partners.

Despite being transplanted from its original UK setting to the US, the 2000 film worked surprisingly well, thanks in part to ever-reliable British director Stephen Frears and a great cast including John Cusack and a then-unknown Jack Black – but also because it stuck closely to the book’s male-centric themes.

The TV series version is also set in the US but now there’s a gender switch, with Zoë Kravitz (daughter of singer Lenny Kravitz and actor Lisa Bonet) in the lead role. She’s meant to be in existential crisis from one too many break-ups, but instead just looks bored and too-cool-for-school. In any case, the gender change feels awkward, done for PC reasons rather than because the material demands it.

High Fidelity the novel scored big because it was an auto-critique of masculine mindsets, especially the very common male desire to command control of life by mastering an obsessive knowledge of things (what, me?). Of course, some women exhibit similar traits and habits. But they’re outliers, relatively speaking. Culturally, the new series – which I gave up in annoyance after episode two – doesn’t strike the chords to make it work. It isn’t funny (at least to this viewer), and the dialogue about popular music trivia often sounds forced.

The latter is no more obvious than in an argument about the best moments of Fleetwood Mac that doesn’t even acknowledge the early, electric blues version of the band led by Peter Green, something even the most half-alert rock snob knows was widely felt to be their finest hour. So much for obsessing over music trivia. The people in this record shop aren’t just anal obsessives, they’re terrible at it!

My Life as a Zucchini, SBS On Demand
My Life as a Zucchini
My Life as a Zucchini
Let me end with a recommendation. My Life as a Zucchini (SBS on Demand) is an utterly charming French claymation (animation using stop motion photography of clay figures) about a young boy sent to a children’s home in the country after his alcoholic mother dies. The dark emotions of emotionally damaged children are handled with sensitivity, empathy and humour while avoiding sentimentality. It’s an absolute gem.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.