Anglophiles rejoice: Netflix’s sumptuous bio-series of Elizabeth II will fill that Downton-sized hole in your heart, with all the elegance (and occasional dullness) that entails.
Never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor. Never let them see that carrying the crown is often a burden. Let them look at you, but let them see only the eternal.
Does a monarchy sound pretty good to anyone else right now? The stability, the unflappability, the grace?
Wait, no. I told myself I wouldn’t start this way.
Sorry, let’s try again.
So Netflix has another new series called The Crown. It’s their most expensive yet, somewhere in the range of 110 million quid for the full ten-episode season, with a green-lit two (and planned five) on the way. Each season attempts to streamline a decade in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II; this one brings us from her royal wedding in 1947, just before her ascension, to the beginning of the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.
Much of this will be opaque to anyone not steeped in world (or at least English) history, and the show doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding about the hierarchy of Dukes and Ministers and Archbishops or the intricacies of Constitutional law. There is simply The Way Things Are, and longstanding tradition vs. the changing modern world, and both are merciless. Indeed, The Crown isn’t a history lesson, but a character study set in a series of immaculate rooms — an examination of what it means to be a Royal, and it earns its melodrama because the series’ major events are a matter of public record.
Elizabeth II herself, the inscrutable, fiercely private, long-suffering public servant, guiding light of the Commonwealth, and Corgi obsessive, makes a fascinating subject. Not just for the historic milestones she’s witnessed or owned herself (as the longest-reigning monarch in English history), but for how much she must paradoxically sacrifice to hold this place of enormous privilege. Creator Peter Morgan has trod this ground before, most notably in the 2006 film The Queen, which dramatized her response to the death of Princess Diana. The Crown plans to return to that moment eventually, but here Morgan winds back the clock to show how the self-described “accidental Queen” takes her first uncertain steps into that title.
And as the Sovereign, Claire Foy (Wolf Hall) shines brighter as the season goes on. It’s a complex portrait of a young women thrust into power earlier than anyone expected (when she was never supposed to be the heir in the first place), and Foy clearly delineates between the naïveté of 25-year-old Elizabeth, and the inner strength and authority she radiates a short decade later.
Her counterweight is husband Philip (Matt Smith, Doctor Who), equally fascinating and human as he chafes against the yoke of royal duty and, worse, royal boredom. A scene early in the series finds the couple at loggerheads, as tradition dictates that Philip must lose not just his home and his vocation, but his own last name. He’s an egalitarian, not a traditionalist, but the idea of publicly kneeling before his wife is still emasculating. Philip’s breezy sarcasm dissipates in the face of it; we feel his frustration just as we understand the trap Elizabeth is in, and Foy and Smith are electric in every scene they share, especially the moments where a little dramatic license is required.
Really, the whole cast is full of standouts, populated both with known and relatively unknown faces. The first few episodes belong to Jared Harris as King George VI, himself thrust into power after his elder brother (Alex Jennings, dryly excellent) abdicated to marry an American socialite. That’s territory was already well-mined by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, but Harris brings real warmth to a role that is far more complex than just the way he talks.
The later episodes depict the slow-motion descent of Winston Churchill into frailty and ineffectiveness, a Great Man brought low by time, and it’s the unlikely American actor John Lithgow that provides the series with its most indelible performance. Coasting on his reputation from the war, Churchill holds onto his position longer than any reasonable person would because he believes the young Elizabeth still needs his support — even when his inaction costs thousands of lives in the Great Smog of 1952 (“Act of God,” itself a tightly structured episode that benefits from The Crown’s avoidance of soapy serialization.) The ninth episode (“Assassins”), where he sits for his infamous 80th birthday portrait, features a remarkable two-hander between Lithgow and the painter (played by Game of Thrones‘s Steven Dillane), finding the cracks in Churchill’s curmudgeonly, bulldog visage.
My favorite episode, however, is the seventh (“Scientia Potesta Est”), Elizabeth’s pivot point from symbol of authority to wielder of authority. After discovering how Churchill and his ministers have been hiding his illness from her, she gives them the “good dressing-down” they deserve, and we watch Churchill crumble in real time from a combination of shame and abject pride (again, Lithgow: magnificent). At the same time, we see her taking responsibility for her own practical education, while the storm clouds of her sister Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) engagement to a divorced man are forming on the horizon.
After a slow start, the series impressively dramatizes the conflicting interests and personal relationships Elizabeth must constantly juggle. Hers with Margaret is another interesting subplot; both jealous of the other, as Margaret is the charmer who loves the spotlight, and Elizabeth the deep introvert stuck making impossible public decisions. The show’s few flaws, ironically, come from its singular focus; outside of Elizabeth’s frequent tours of the Commonwealth (themselves problematic, as the series plays it as conservative as Tories in critiquing British Imperialism), nothing of note happens outside of Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street. On a few occasions, the implied dullness of royal life translates into actual dullness in the drama; an interlude where Elizabeth and Philip consider horse breeding is as gripping as it sounds.
Furthermore, where at least Downton Abbey gave us both the upstairs and the downstairs, The Crown at times carries a faint whiff of classism that likely comes from not wanting to offend its subject. Many wonder why the U.K. still has a monarchy at all; the best answer The Crown gives is “because the people need it.” That Philip sees the Great Smog as merely an inconvenience to his flying lessons is presented as passively as possible. There’s an opportunity as the series progresses to go deeper on these ideas, especially as the world rapidly modernizes and the balance of power continues to shift.
Still, boy, does it look impressive. Once again, all that Netflix money went to good use, as every location and every gown is awe-inspiring and picturesque. Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) sets the deliberate tone in the first two hours; the cinematography is rich; the score from Rupert Gregson-Williams appropriately magisterial. Though The Crown is unlikely to win the institution any new fans, those of us who are already fascinated by it will find much to love. Here in the colonies, that fascination is at least in part an exercise in “what might have been.” But if you come at the Queen, you best not miss.