'Young Catherine' full of pomp, pageantry and on-location filming.

TELEVISION

February 16, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

Required reading for today's column, a mini-history lesson:

The Russian empress who has come to be known as Catherine the Great assumed the throne in 1762 and became the most intellectual, progressive ruler of that vast, uneasy collection of tribal territories since Peter the Great two generations earlier.

Thus, it may be helpful to know, the historical setting of "Young Catherine," an opulent new miniseries premiering this weekend on basic cable's TNT service, parallels America's pre-revolutionary period.

Among other things, that means we see more wigs and sequined clothes than on a Dolly Parton special - and these are on the guys! Some noted performers, including Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Plummer and Maximilian Schell, get to do some hearty scene chewing, too.

This four-hour exercise in pomp, pageantry and intrigue (at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on TNT) takes no great pains to place things in scholarly context. But that is the only thing about which "Young Catherine" is reserved - oh, along with a relative modesty in dealing with Catherine's other whispered repute, a particularly hearty sexual appetite.

As costume dramas go, this one is pretty good, if not quite up to those great PBS classics, "Henry the VIII" and "Elizabeth R."

Unlike those, this generous production from Ted Turner benefits enormously from the Soviet Union's recent glasnost embrace of on-location film production.

The real star of "Young Catherine" (and also "The Russia House" recently at the movies) is the royal czar's residence, The Winter Palace at Leningrad, nee St. Petersburg.

From loving close-ups of ceiling frescoes to nighttime views of the palace alight, there is no doubt this is the genuine extravagant article. (Other shooting sites included the Peter-and-Paul Fortress and the Smolny district, whose pastel blue cathedral is a Leningrad landmark.)

The story of Catherine's rise is genuinely remarkable, too, and English actress Julia Ormond as the title character brings it off pretty well.

At the age of 16, Princess Sophia of a small Prussian district is summoned to be the bride of Grand Duke Peter, a childish and soon-to-be-mad heir to the throne. Empress Elizabeth (Redgrave), daughter of Peter the Great, wants a male heir as soon as possible, knowing Peter "the witless" is incapable of carrying on her work to unify the Russias.

On the road, however, the princess and her mother (Marthe Keller) are enlisted by Germany's Frederick the Great (Schell) to be his eyes and ears in Russia. The princess also has a smoldering-eyes encounter with a young military escort, Count Orlov, and no lover of historical romances could fail to see a future meeting is in store.

In St. Petersburg, the betrothed finds Duke Peter disinterested in her - he says he hates the cold and the dark and would rather be designing soldiers' uniforms. Yet she is also the target of palace plotter Count Vorontsov (Franco Nero), who sees her as an impediment to his ambitions.

When her mother's spying for the German monarch is discovered, the future empress finds platonic companionship with the English ambassador (Plummer). He also offers instruction in the arts of palace politics and is the first to suggest a solution to one of her problems might be to "get a lover," thus facilitating the return of Count Orlov.

Obviously, here are all the elements of a succession of plots and sub-plots, and it would be unfair to reveal too much here. Fans of this genre of film will recognize the outlines readily, and others should know that royal feasts, weddings, births, deaths, military battles, love scenes (very subdued by cable standards) and even an early medical treatment of impotence are among the developments.

Redgrave, the movie's biggest name (who ironically also stars Sunday night in ABC's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" with sister Lynn), is at times saddled with some hokey dialogue. "An empress with no enemies is no empress," she intones at one point.

But her grasping hunger for a suitable heir, and eventual recognition that the young foreigner imported to be a mere baby bearer may have qualities worth supporting, are conveyed with believability.

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