12 December 2016

Series Review: The Crown

This review is spoiler free. If you have not yet watched the series, you may read without feeling that too much is revealed. However, I will presume that you have some familiarity with the story Elizabeth II's early life upon which the series is based.

Royal watchers and royal historians often get excited about upcoming films and television programs featuring royal themes or characters. Few of these live up to our expectations (The King's Speech and The Young Victoria) while most are dismal disappointments (The Tudors and Versailles). With each newly announced production, I get my hopes up and eagerly await its arrival. In the case of the new Netflix Original Series The Crown, I even subscribed to Netflix for the first time since the stopped mailing rental discs. "This had better be good," I thought as I agreed to pay a monthly subscription rate in order to watch about 10 hours of programming.

Even then, I hesitated to watch it. I let other royal bloggers and Tweeps take a look first. I avoided reading their full-blown posts but it soon became clear that The Crown is special. So at long last I started watching it. Lacking the time to truly binge watch, I finished the 10-episode series in about a week and was desperately waiting for Netflix to roll straight into episode 11. That moment was my only true instance of disappointment.

The Crown is spectacular. Not only is it a fine work of historical fiction, but it is an extraordinarily well-produced piece of "television" (it doesn't really air on television, after all). Of course, some will quibble over details: this characters attire wasn't historically accurate, that character wasn't present when that happened, the timing of this occurrence is misrepresented, etc. etc. They are all correct but they are all wrong to focus on this level of minutiae. If, as my feature writing professor told me in grad school, the most important thing is to represent the "emotional truth" of the story, The Crown is incredibly successful. It fairly and, I think, accurately represents the natural conflict that exists between the Crown or being monarch and the human person who holds the position. It does this by holding up not only Elizabeth's life but comparing it to her predecessors: her father, her uncle and through Queen Mary, her grandfather. We catch at least glimpses of four different monarchs' approaches to this singular struggle that only they can fully appreciate.

The series also ably conveys the post-war, early Cold War political drama of Winston Churchill's final premiership. It even juxtaposes the respectable decline of this elder statesman and hero with the simultaneous dissolution of the British Empire. Why is Philip's Uncle Dickie (Lord Mountbatten) disliked? Because he gave up India, considered the jewel in the crown. Of course, the real reasons for displeasure with Mountbatten was deeper and more complex than this, but you can only show so much in a series. This distillation of history and historical figures and their relationships with each other is one of the things that I think The Crown does remarkably well. It also provides adequate context so that the uninitiated viewer will understand what is happening and can perceive why something that today seems unimportant (like a princess wishing to marry a divorced courtier) seemed so devastating to the "establishment" at the time.

The Crown also does an incredible job of capturing the look and feel of the era. We see inside the palaces and Downing Street and royal planes, trains, boats and cars. We see behind the scenes into the details of the Royal Family as people. Who knows if the personal moments depicted are all historically accurate? Who cares? The program enables us to see them as a true family where parents and children criticize and blame each other, siblings envy and resent each other, married couples allow little things to become more important than they should be. But we also see the love, support and joy they have in each other. Families are complex; this one included. It is sometimes difficult to imagine the real Royal Family in this way because they generally don't display their familial feelings in public. Yet, The Crown, lets us see and believe it. There is no more evocative moment than the Duke of Windsor's final visit with his dying mother Queen Mary. There is so much distrust and pain between them, but he is her firstborn and she is his mum. In this scene, we see him behaving as so many of us would. No other depiction of this complex relationship has ever been as intimate.

The series artfully conveys the life and world of Her Majesty using a number of devices. It is not simply dramatic prose; it is a fully realized production. My favorite example of this is the use of telephones throughout the series. Of course, early telephone communications were for more convoluted than they are today, but the producers did not have to show this. The telephone here becomes a symbol of the distances between people and how difficult it is to truly communicate with and understand each other. We see this in episode two, "Hyde Park Corner," when no one is able to reach Elizabeth after her father's death. We see it again in "Gelignite," an episode about the relationship between Elizabeth and her sister Margaret as we go with Margaret's phone call through a series of relays and operators to get through to the person who has been her closest companion for all of her life. We see it again in "Assassins," when a direct line becomes a symbol for intimacy and a subject of marital discord.

Finally, The Crown gives us extraordinarily nuanced performances. Victoria Hamilton adds another queen to her resume. Having portrayed Queen Victoria earlier in her career, she now gives us an emotionally vulnerable but tough-as-nails Queen Mother at a turning point in her life. People today remember the real Queen Mother as smiling, elderly granny. Few think about the devastation she faced as an empty-nest widow who lost her beloved husband, her crown and her purpose at the age of just 51.

Matt Smith is incredible as the young Prince Philip, unsure of his place in the world imagining threats to his virility and masculinity everywhere he looks. I was concerned that I would not be able to put aside my image of Smith as the Eleventh Doctor in the British sci fi classic, Doctor Who, but I clearly underestimated this actor's skills. Among all of the characters, his Philip is the one that I find most real. Not only have they nailed the physical resemblance, but Smith has mastered his manner, his speech, his attitude, his naughtiness, his everything. I sometimes forget that he is not actually the Duke of Edinburgh.

Likewise with Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II. She has captured Her Majesty's quiet grace. The Queen herself is a master of hiding emotion and yet somehow Foy has managed to display the emotion behind the generally reserved blank face. You can see that Elizabeth's emotions run deep, you can feel her anxiety, her determination, her strength of character. Together Foy and Smith help us to better understand the complexities of the real Elizabeth and Philip's early marriage. It was not easy for either of them.

One of the most divisive casting choices seems to be the American actor John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. While I am sometimes distracted by Lithgow's height, although he certainly slumps over as much as he possibly can, I think he has done a brilliant job of conveying Churchill. Having recently watched Michael Gambon in Churchill's Secret, which covers the same time period, I have to give both productions glowing reviews both for their portrayals of Churchill and of the relationship between him and his wife Clementine.

Once again, I am disturbed by the sheer height of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, but these physical characteristics are not as important the actor's ability. More than any other character in the series, I want to see Princess Margaret's story unfold, not only because hers is the most dramatic one in the family until the advent of Diana in 1981, but because Kirby is clearly up to the task of playing her. I want to see Kirby show us the glamorous princess on the outside and the broken woman on the inside.

Finally, I have to mention one more outstanding performance: Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II, and longtime advisor to the Queen Mother. I don't know what Torrens did to prepare for the role, but perhaps he consulted Sarah Duchess of York because he certainly embodies the "Gray Men" of the palace that she describes in her own memoirs in interviews; the old guard behind the scenes at the palace who truly control everything including the monarch. Like every character around him, I would not want to find myself sitting opposite of Torrens' Lascelles. When the Queen decides to corner him in his own lair, things do not go as she expected. And, the scene where he sends Margaret's lover, Peter Townsend (played ably by Ben Miles) to Belgium is one of my favorites.

The Crown is a must-watch program. If you don't have Netflix, sign up today! Do not delay.


  1. I seem to be your one-person fan club! Why is everyone else not commenting and appreciating your posts? Come on people, it is lonely in here! Cheryl, once again you have nailed it! Thank you.

    1. You are well on your way to winning Reader of the Year! Thanks!!

  2. Okay, first question: how does one sign up for Netflix? Next, is the series repeating--can a subscriber view it "on demand?" As for your review, it was interesting, and has made me even more eager to watch this series. Thank you.

    1. Simply go to Netflix.com. If you are not in the U.S., they have versions around the globe available in different languages. You can choose how you wish to have your content delivered. For instance, I can watch on my computer, my tablet, my smart phone and through my husband's XBox. Their content is archived but I'm not sure if everything remains available forever. You can certainly still watch The Crown. You can also create a custom viewing list of tv programs, movies, etc. that you wish to watch and it will make suggestions based on what you have previously selected. You do have to stream most content, so it may impact your wifi or data plan. However, they are now making some content available for download that you can get now and watch later--good for when you are nearing your data limit or about to travel to somewhere without wifi access. Definitely don't miss The Crown.