Years ago, I remember hearing that the Queen had a great sense of humor, was great at impressions and generally kept the family amused during family holidays. I remember being pretty shocked by the idea – her presence in the public sphere is always that of class, of composure and decorum. Queen Elizabeth the Second is an icon, as steady and enduring as the cruise liners named after her. Of course she had a personality in private, but it was hard to imagine. Thanks to The Crown, it all feels so much more real.
Taking place during the course of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne in the 1950s, The Crown is a Netflix original that takes on the heavy burden of showing the inner workings of England’s oldest and most revered institution, the monarchy. It does so in a way that feels at once intimate and intimidating, sweet and cold, all wrapped up in some stellar character performances.
At its core, The Crown feels sumptuous. The details from the sets to the costumes to the writing is truly phenomenal. Each room, each scene feels like a peek behind the curtain, a moment we learn to understand the inner workings of some of the most important and powerful people in the world after austerity.
Elizabeth was young when she became a monarch, a happy wife and mother, married to a charming man. The Duke of Edinburgh is brilliantly portrayed by Matt Smith, who makes the role dashing and sexy while also turbulent. How can a man live in the shadow of such a powerful woman and still consider himself a husband, a father, and to some extent the head of a household? Harder still is the role of Claire Foy who delivers an emotional and conflicted performance as Elizabeth. How can she be a wife, a sister, a daughter when she is also a head of both church and state? How does she balance Elizabeth the person with Elizabeth the monarch?
However, perhaps most surprising to an anglophile such as myself was the fact that I wasn’t drawn to watching this series until I heard that John Lithgow was playing Winston Churchill. The fact that the 1.93m American actor could so convincingly embody the bulldog that was Churchill is a feat of a performance. Lithgow’s aging, decaying Churchill is a triumph and easily one of the best parts of the entire first season.
What I found the most striking was the way that humor, love and personality were woven into the historical events. Vulgar, sarcastic and intimate moments are seamlessly combined with the highest orders of politics as each episode tackles such important events as the coronation, or a natural disaster, or concerns about constitutional interpretation.
Unfortunately, what is the show’s greatest inspiration is also the greatest cause of frustration. While Foy does a convincing job of showing us a conflicted Elizabeth grappling with her role as Queen while also trying to be a loving wife, too often the final decision feels predictable. Of course she will do what is expected of her as a monarch, of course she will opt for appearing cold and calculating in public rather than warm and caring. It’s not that she is that way at heart, perhaps, but the facts of the matter remain and Queen Elizabeth didn’t bend the rules or norms in those days. I’m hoping that future seasons of the series tackle more of the modern instances and we can see other interactions that might be more surprising.
The pacing of The Crown was a major draw for me, but might be too slow for other viewers. The series takes its time, reveling in the details including scenes devoted to a maid vacuuming the carpets in Buckingham Palace or the long pauses that can hang between Elizabeth and Philip. These set mood and tone in the series, but can make it feel like episodes drag on without much to say. When asked what one episode was about, all I could reply was “Smog”, although of course there was so much more to it. With Elizabeth as one of the longest reigning monarchs, it makes sense that a series about her would take its time to truly explore the nuance of her experience rather than focus on the salacious details and scandals.
It feels like the approach to The Crown mirrors Queen Elizabeth II in this regard. It is measured and careful, touching on everything that matters but without lingering on scandals. It feels weighty and important while still having room for humor and humanity.