Catherine the Great [1995]

Russian history occurs on a sweeping scale, but that takes a bigger budget than A&E can muster. So instead the cable network keeps its treatment of Russian empress Catherine II indoors as much as possible. That allows the camera to linger over the impossibly lovely face of Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the plot to focus on the political machinations of 18th-century Russia. Catherine goes from a bookish teen bride (her husband is the crazy and possibly impotent nephew of Russia's Empress Elizabeth) to the legendary empress who successfully concluded the Seven Years' War with Prussia, conquered Turkey, and put down a rebellion led by a Cossack pretending to be her long-dead husband. The movie stumbles a bit when it ventures outdoors--it's hard to imagine Russia really conquered the Ottoman Turks with a 12-man army--but sizzles inside. Zeta-Jones conveys both passion and hard-edged ambition as her character transforms herself from manipulated to manipulator. Many of those manipulations occur in the bedroom, and the movie takes some liberties in portraying her union with military leader Grigory Potemkin (Paul McGann); here he's practically a saint, although history remembers him a bit less nobly. The supporting cast includes Jeanne Moreau in a masterful portrayal of Empress Elizabeth, along with Ian Richardson, Mel Ferrer, and Omar Sharif. Although there's plenty of scenery for them to chew, they hold back, allowing Zeta-Jones her 100 minutes of greatness. --Kimberly Heinrichs

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