NB: There is one small spoiler at the end of this review, though it should come as no surprise, given the subject of this series.
There is nothing more we Americans like than a dramatized peek into the lives of royals. Never having had a royal family of our own or even a real aristocracy, there is something romantic about the idea of a hereditary class that persisted even into the 20th (and 21st) century, particularly when there are British accents involved. To this end, the new Netflix original series The Crown does not disappoint. The first season is a look into the ascension and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with a good mix of political plotting and salacious personal detail.
First of all, the series is written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screen play for the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren played Elizabeth dealing with the public fallout from the death of Princess Diana. And this makes sense, as the series has a very similar feeling. In particular, the sense of pathos he is able to evoke is unparalleled, particularly surrounding older characters. In The Queen, his portrayal of the Queen Mother prompted me to call my grandmother; in The Crown, his portrayal of Winston Churchill prompted me to reevaluate my own feelings towards my (now-deceased) father and (dementia-stricken) grandfather. Morgan is particularly gifted at writing scenes that show the little indignities of age.
But the focal point of the show is the new queen herself, and her relationships, both political and personal. Of note is the relationship between her and her husband, Prince Phillip. This series really helped cement how much I dislike the characters I’ve seen Matt Smith play, which doesn’t sound like a recommendation, except that Phillip is just so deliciously sullen. Despite his wish to be the dominant head of a marriage to the actual Queen of England, he comes of as a spoiled brat, rather than an angry man. And I think this distinction makes it easier to accept him as a troubled consort, rather than a threat. In contrast, Claire Foy has a perfect mix of quiet poise and demure strength when going up against a government system that should be no stranger to a ruling queen, and yet seems to continually fall victim to the sexist zeitgeist while dealing with her. She is able to, for the most part, gently overcome her opposition, showing her fire only when necessary, and otherwise remaining the perfect lady of the times.
Two last notes: I was absolutely floored by John Lithgow’s performance as Churchill. Apart from the impressive physical transformation, I thought he brought gravitas and honesty to Morgan’s aforementioned deftly written scenes of a man coming to terms with the end of his own reign of sorts. And Jared Harris played King George VI with such sympathy that it was almost a shame the show did not start a season earlier. I found his George more believable than Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech, because there is always something too self-possessed about Firth’s portrayal of awkward characters. Harris played the perfect tragic king, and seemed like he brought a vulnerability to the character of the unlikely monarch that I would have liked to see from his beginnings. It truly is a shame that he tends to die so early in his small-screen roles.
All in all, The Crown serves as another wonderful dramatization of British royalty, and is a welcome respite from the Tudor era, truth be told.