For those of you who’ve been suffering from withdrawal symptoms since Downton Abbey ended, I can almost guarantee that you’ll love The Crown, which is an Anglophile’s wet dream but also some damn fine television.
The Crown is the story of Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms, and her ascension to power. The first season covers the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign, and the hope is that each subsequent season will cover a decade of her reign until it catches up to the present day.
The similarities with Downton Abbey are there: Sumptuous sets and storylines that deal with the upper echelons of British society in the early part of the 20th century, but that is where it ends. Where Downton was perpetually worried about class tension, The Crown deals with something more dangerous and seductive: power.
That is not to say that The Crown is a substitute for Game of Thrones while we wait for the new season. For one, there’s much less gore, though The Crown does feature a lot more political machinations.
Writer Peter Morgan uses real events as a frame on which to weave his story, a rich dramatisation of some of the key moments of British history. It’s worth noting that Morgan has also written Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen, so it’s not as if this is new territory for him.
The dialogue can be a little clunky and stilted at times, but when Morgan gets it right, it’s nothing short of stirring and moving. My favourite bit from the first two episodes comes after the death of King George VI (Jared Harris), when Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary (Dame Eileen Atkins) writes a letter that commands her to set her private grief aside, and become the Queen that her people need.
It is this tension between the private and public selves of the royal family that drives the narrative. As Elizabeth struggles in her new role as Queen, Foy is the very picture of buttoned-up restraint, and has an uncanny ability to convey multiple layers of trepidation, misery and resolve with her eyes alone.
I first put The Crown on my “To Watch” list after they announced the casting of Matt Smith (the hugely popular Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who) as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He is at turns petulant and caring in his emasculation as Prince Consort, forever doomed to walk two steps behind his wife. With another actor, this portrayal could have become tiresome very quickly, but Smith navigates this tension very ably and puts in an incredibly nuanced performance.
But what I found most interesting is the framing of Philip as an object of desire. There are long, lingering shots of Smith shirtless (or naked), bathed in sunlight and with his blond hair flopping in the wind. And in one scene where Elizabeth takes a holiday video of her naked husband sleeping in bed, I came to the realisation that this might be one of the rare shows that don’t treat women merely as sexual objects.
Aside from Foy, The Crown features a cast of actresses who play a host of complex characters, from the formidable Queen Mary, to the shrewd Clementine Churchill (Harriet Walter), to the impulsive Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby).
Indeed, The Crown tells the story of what happens behind the scenes when a woman rises to power. The rich, old men in power are basically overgrown children who throw tantrums, while the women are the ones responsible for the decisions that keep the country from crumbling to bits. And Elizabeth, solid as a rock, always, always chooses duty over her personal opinions.
John Lithgow was an atypical choice for Winston Churchill, but he injects pathos into the role and makes it remarkable. Even with a Churchill who is old, doddering, and increasingly incompetent, when he reads out his eulogy for the King (see full text here), it is a truly moving moment. Similarly, Jared Harris (aka Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) gives a thoroughly poignant performance as King George VI.
But there are a still a few missteps, especially when it comes to the portrayal of colonialisation. In one scene, an entire African tribe watches as Elizabeth and Philip travel to the airfield, casting overly sentimental and wistful looks somewhere into the mid-distance. In another, a servant at their villa actually kneels down to kiss her shoes. Of course, many will say that it’s a good thing that this wasn’t glossed over like so many other depictions of colonialism, but that doesn’t make it any less unsettling.
Overall, The Crown makes for some incredibly compelling drama and is an excellent addition to Netflix’s stable of original content. Watch it if you like period dramas like Downton Abbey. Watch it if you like the power struggles of Game of Thrones. Watch it if you miss Matt Smith as the Doctor.
But by all means, watch it if you’ve got an evening or two to Netflix and chill.
All 10 episodes of The Crown are available on Netflix now.