On paper, producing a show on the most popular monarchs in recent history is bound to be a hit. Yet, it would be reductive to say Netflix’s The Crown had it in the bag from the start. While the Windsors have lived through enough drama to produce a worthy TV adaptation, it’s not the scandals that make their fictionalized counterparts compelling. Regardless of the British monarchs’ popularity, in the eyes of the public they have always come across as rather heartless. Thus, how does Peter Morgan tell the story of Queen Elizabeth II from an insider’s perspective, a side of the monarchy that has remained almost entirely inaccessible for over sixty years?
Recounting the life of any monarch is a challenge, more so if that monarch is still living. You can’t take as many artistic liberties as you can with, say, the Tudors. Whatever you show on screen will be scrutinized by historians, the press, and every other person that has had access to a news outlet in the past decades. More importantly, a skewed representation can be subjected to libel claims by the family if it departs from the truth. Well, if Peter Morgan has taught us anything (especially after his Golden Globe win) is that honesty is always the best policy.
What Respect Gets You
Morgan and his writers were able to tap into Elizabeth Windsor’s psyche thanks to their respectful approach. Every character in this show retains humanity and dignity, even during trying times. At no point is Margaret reduced to the unstable, boisterous younger sister, or is her story with Peter Townsend boiled down to childish impulses. Instead, The Crown grants the benefit of the doubt to all of its subjects.
It is perspective that breathes life into these characters. The Crown doesn’t play Prince Philip, the black sheep, to his extremes. Instead, it focuses on how a politically hostile childhood made his self-aware of the downfalls of chronically conservative monarchies. Using Philip’s lively predisposition as foil for a less engaging Elizabeth would’ve made matters easier for portraying Elizabeth in a better light. Yet, the cost would’ve been to lose Philip in the process. Instead, The Crown bets on its characters’ real-life counterparts to win over the audience through their complexity and through their own frame of reference.
These precautions are what will save The Crown in the future. Right now, the tension within the Windsor family has not reached its historical climax. If they would’ve opted for cranking up the drama so early on, the treatment of Diana’s tragedy would have become an unmanageable hurdle.
The Queen Mother
At the beginning, the Queen Mother showed symptoms of a plot device. She would come in and out of scenes to offer minor input, scold her children, or encourage her husband. As her role became more pronounced, Elizabeth came across as a fickle force in the family stratagem. Her ploys to keep Edward and Margaret in check appearing juvenile next to real diplomatic issues. That is until the genuine grief and weakness, played spectacularly by Victoria Hamilton, gave way for the real Elizabeth to emerge from the ashes of a displaced queen.
When the Queen Mother finally allows the viewer to see her cry and fumble for the right words, her grief becomes accessible. She becomes human. We can empathize with a woman that seeks the landscapes of her maternal Scotland in search of solace. Regardless of already knowing the outcome, there is palpable worry when she tells her daughter she’s going “to think.” We feel the ruling queen’s fear at letting her unstable mother fend for herself, and we are brought back to life by seeing the Queen Mother finally reunite with the self she murdered upon her husband’s coronation. Elizabeth visiting Caithness and purchasing the Castle of Mey could’ve been minor events in The Crown. Instead, Victoria Hamilton is allowed to give Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon her dignity.
Thinking back to the Queen Mother of earlier episodes, I can sympathize with a desolate woman who doesn’t know how to tap into her strengths anymore. When her daughter Elizabeth confronts her about her education, her reaction attests that she had been acting to the best of her ability. The Queen Mother did not see following protocol as a downfall, even if it meant staying behind the times.
Philip Mountbatten x Elizabeth Windsor
Before filming, Matt Smith ran into Prince William at a charity polo match. He took advantage of the encounter to ask William for advice. The response? One word: legend. This was enough for Matt Smith to captivate us with the hyperactive Philip Mountbatten. Yes, Philip’s turbulence is tactfully incorporated, but it’s the sturdiness and dependability behind the hedonist that make him a legend.
The Crown created tension for the duke in two ways. The first element is Philip’s social outings. Though never committing adultery or actively flirting, his drinking and rowdiness are enough to make us uneasy. We’re not sure if at any point the camera will turn to reveal a mistress, but we are relieved every time it doesn’t. The second element is allowing us to see Philip through the eyes of those who don’t trust him. Juxtaposed with Elizabeth’s understanding of her husband and Philip’s near-stellar parenting, enough space is created for Matt Smith to do his thing.
What appears to be a reservation to married life with Elizabeth becomes an apprehensiveness to life as the Queen’s consort. As Philip is allowed to take up screen time, the audience comes to realize how delicate monarchical marriages are. In a world with no titles, Philip would have been free to pass on his last name to his children, spend more time with them, and above all else, feel his wife accessible. The dynamic between Philip and Elizabeth is not something out of a fairy tale but out of a sincere history book. The highest praise falls on Foy and Smith, who communicate through glances everything that cannot be said in the short time they’re allowed to interact.
Her Majesty, The Queen
The Crown could’ve survived if it missed a few shots with other characters. But with good reason, we can’t say the same for Her Majesty. The most intriguing aspects of this show are founded in Elizabeth’s acceptance of her shortcomings. Whenever she’s forced to come across as dull or self-serving in her public life, she tries to overcompensate in her personal relationships. The divide between Elizabeth Windsor and Elizabeth Regina allow for a flawed character. In her stern predisposition as queen, Elizabeth must never allow others to see her falter. In her daily life, it is her inability to misstep, as Margaret would point out, that surrounds her with hostility.
What makes this show is Claire Foy’s ability to give us a Queen and a Lilibet, coexisting in the invisible civil war that only takes place in her head. In one scene she’s desperately trying to make up for a poor education. In the next she’s lecturing the Parliament. She has the stamina to complete the whole Commonwealth tour, but not to shelter her heart from the pain of her husband’s prolonged absences. We see her find comfort in Porchey’s attention and their mutual love of horses. Yet, instead of scandalizing their friendship, the added distance between the queen and her consort sets them in a path of reconciliation.
Winston Churchill, the Man
It is almost difficult to watch an old and withered Winston Churchill fighting for the last stretches of his tenure as prime minister. The Crown succeeds at extracting this engaging and vital angle of his life by incorporating tokens of his previous grandioseness. While Venetia Scott is an entirely fictional character, her purpose is to serve as an admirer of Churchill’s. She is young and disconnected from the Churchill of the 1940s. Yet, through working with him she develops a profound appreciation of Churchill, regarding him as a formidable man even at his old age.
This is precisely what The Crown achieves with the character of Winston. We already know Winston the war hero, but not so much the pond-painting, broken person who cannot let go of power out of fear. At first we believe that what he fears is to let the country fall in the wrong hands. In reality, Winston fears losing purpose and having to admit to himself that the journey is over. The long winded retirement was put to good use as we got to know the aged man in time to mourn the once intrepid young hero.
The Crown Itself
To me, the most enjoyable part of the show was the ongoing debate on the monarchy. As we know, back in the day monarchies governed entire kingdoms. They made all of the decisions and thus were of the utmost importance to their subjects. Now, monarchies have turned into a decorative piece for the government. For this reason, the Queen Mother advises Elizabeth to maintain the illusion, to continue giving the people something to aspire to.
Elizabeth’s journey into queenship is equivalent to her coming to terms with what the role of a monarch is supposed to be. There are times when she is terribly aware of how her job is only to be a silent bystander. However, when she sees the impact completing the commonwealth tour had, she understands that perceived value is still value.
It’s fair to say that any royal house in this day and age asks itself the same questions. The Crown reminds us that a job is a job, after all. There might be gowns and tiaras, but at the end of the day, these people are forced to perform tasks that seem menial day in and day out. They have to entertain people they probably don’t like, and cannot allow themselves to be sharp around the edges, or in fact, have edges at all. Is it worth it? Maybe we’ll find out in season two.
So should you watch The Crown? Absolutely.
- Claire Foy's acting
- OTP MargaretxPeter
- Attention to detail
- Every character's perspective is respected
- It could be dense for people who don't like historical dramas
- Where's Season 2?
- The fog being turned into a bigger deal than it was in real life