In one of the later episodes of The Crown‘s latest season, Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) wears a look of resignation as her third Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser) tells her he is no longer fit enough to fulfill his duties. Her reply is a terse one:
“Do you know, I’ve been queen barely ten years. And in that time I’ve had three Prime Ministers. All of them ambitious men, clever men, brilliant men. Not one has lasted the course. They’ve either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters.”
Because of course, as the queen, she can’t quit her job like they have, especially after the abdication of King Edward, now the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings). As the queen, she is the one constant in a world of inconstant things.
While that all sounds terribly depressing, I am happy to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed all ten episodes of The Crown‘s new season, which covers the period spanning 1956 to 1964. We see how the Queen deals with a rapidly deteriorating personal life, the Suez Crisis, critics attacking the monarchy, the spectre of the past and the Profumo affair, all while presenting an impassive facade to the public.
The burden of duty is an overarching theme in this season. But it is not so much a ball and chain as it is a constant reminder that Elizabeth must put her country’s needs above her own, otherwise the great empire built up by her forefathers will crumble at her feet. A lesser person might be felled by this, but series writer Peter Morgan (he who also wrote The Queen and the play The Audience) has given us a queen who comes out of it smelling of roses despite the difficulties and criticism she encounters.
Morgan depicts Elizabeth as a solid, steady presence in a world gone mad. This might be oversimplistic at best and revisionist at worst, but seems necessary given the restraints of the medium. Each hour-long episode of The Crown focuses on one major historical event at a time, but it is remarkably coherent as a whole as it addresses how the monarchy has to adapt to the changing times.
While I found the scenes about the rockiness of the royal marriage to be a little hamfisted and clunky — talking about weathering the storm and staying the course while on a boat that is literally in a storm, really?? — in this new Golden Age of television, this show is still the jewel in Netflix’s crown. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
The Crown is really at its best whenever Foy, and only Foy, is onscreen. Her Elizabeth is the very picture of calm and dignity in front of the world’s cameras, but in the confines of her private quarters, the facade drops. Not by much, but enough to hint at the growing turmoil within Elizabeth as she is forced to make tough decisions. Foy does this all with wonderful subtlety. Every arch of an eyebrow, every twitch of a cheek telegraphs the emotion that bubbles just beneath the surface. She does more with a widening of her eyes than most actors do in an entire scene.
In the first season, Matt Smith showed that he had more in him than just a quirky Eleventh Doctor in his bag of tricks. But here in his second go-round as Philip, Smith has fully embraced the role. He isn’t afraid to make Philip look ugly in childish displays of anger, but he also humanises the Queen’s consort in a way that actually made me feel sorry for the real-life Prince Philip.
In fact, the entire cast is an embarrassment of acting riches. Kudos must be given to the excellent supporting cast, including Pip Torrens as retired courtier Tommy Lascelles, Will Keen as the Queen’s Private Secretary Michael Adeane, and Harry Hadden-Paton as Assistant Private Secretary Martin Charteris. As the Queen’s courtiers they are mostly background characters, but their moment to shine comes in a surprisingly comedic moment during Elizabeth’s spontaneous visit to Ghana.
But even in this massively talented cast, the standouts for me were Vanessa Kirby and Matthew Goode, who play Princess Margaret and her paramour Tony Armstrong-Jones respectively. The two episodes that focused on their courtship and eventual marriage are seductive, frustrating and thrilling in turn, and are easily my favourite of the whole season.
Kirby in particular plays Princess Margaret with panache, always ready with a cutting remark as she chainsmokes her way through Buckingham Palace. She does a very good job of balancing her sardonic wit with an air of vulnerability and insecurity that is at times so raw that it took my breath away.
On the other hand, Goode’s Tony is louche in all the best ways, an unsettling bohemian presence in an age-old institution that thrives on tradition. Together, they are forever chafing at the bit, desperate to break free of the confines of the gilded cage that simultaneously affords them all the privileges of royalty, but none of the freedom they so yearn for.
The only real misstep in the season comes in the form of Michael C Hall, who puts in a strangely flat and dull performance as President John F Kennedy. It might’ve been alright in another production, but against this backdrop of acting excellence, Hall just pales in comparison. For a role as charismatic as JFK, Hall’s version was sadly devoid of all charm.
It’s a pity that we won’t see anymore of Foy and Smith (and presumably Kirby) in their roles next year. Netflix has already announced the casting of Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth in her next stage of life, and while I’m confident that Colman will thrive in this role, my only hope is that they cast a Philip who has as much chemistry with Elizabeth as Smith does with Foy.
All 10 episodes of Season 2 of The Crown are available on Netflix now. Check out our review of The Crown season 1.