The Crown (2016): Review

The Crown is the newest Netflix Original Series that you will be badgered to watch by everyone you know. The good news is, it’s a stylish and enjoyable series. The medium-to-bad news is that it deals with an obstinately neutral ruler who never deviates from the righteous path of duty, which makes for a rather fatalistic plot. No matter how hard the writers try, they simply can’t rewrite history. And sadly, in the golden age of television, The Crown fails to make the impact it requires to be remembered and revered.

The first season of The Crown examines Queen Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) ascension to the throne – beginning with her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith) in 1947. The major players during this time were Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirkby), Prince Philip and of course, Queen Elizabeth II, herself. Churchill’s decline in power, Princess Margaret’s romantic scandal and Prince Philip’s increasing resentment for Queen Elizabeth, are just some of the stories the season follows. At the centre of all of this is Queen Elizabeth – a woman of 25, whom the monarchy is thrust upon far too early.

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Left to right: The Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton), Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), the former King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), Prince Philip (Matt Smith), Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirkby), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam)

The Crown begins where The King’s Speech left off. (Although, clearly, The Crown is set almost 20 years after Edward VIII’s abdication.) Both are excellent productions with scripts that aim to be revealing, but respectful. The cinematography even seems to share the same muted colour palette. Whilst the actors are clearly portraying the same people, it is interesting to see just how similar their performances are. So – if you enjoyed The King’s Speech, I think you would also enjoy The Crown. It is a thoroughly decent watch.

However, The Crown is not the gutting political drama that House of Cards is, nor is it as powerful as The King’s Speech (although sometimes it tries to be). This is truly because Queen Elizabeth appears to have dedicated herself to being the best figurehead of the royal family in history. From the outside, she is neutral to a T. Even script writers are unable to, or are unwilling to, extrapolate her personality beyond that of pleasant and devoted. There is nothing wrong with this portrayal of the Queen (and it probably is quite accurate), but it makes for a show wherein the central character is merely a prop in far more interesting storylines. This is alluding to what I mentioned earlier – you can only stretch history so far…Especially recent history.

Despite the fact that the character of Queen Elizabeth is not exactly very imaginative or inspiring; when the show is forced to dance outside the lines of official history (i.e. every piece of dialogue), I found myself somewhat distressed. When the script did make feeble attempts to be memorable and/or iconic, it felt forced and over dramatised. I’m mainly referring to a few “powerful” conversations between characters, usually to do with internal politics and half-hearted attempts at power play. Monologues ending with pointed silences just don’t feel right in this show – a show which earnestly attempts to convince its viewers that it is deeply rooted in reality.

Queen Elizabeth may be the most private public figure of our time. Because of this, The Crown must connect the dots and fill in the blanks of the private life of the royal family. This is unavoidable, of course, but I still found it uncomfortable. Particularly because, according to the show, every aspect of Elizabeth’s life is pretty tense. We do see a few nice/intimate moments; but the overwhelming majority of the “humanising” the show does, is actually just Elizabeth struggling to manage the people around her. We see her decisions and justifications, but we don’t see her. Perhaps this is a moot point because none of us will ever know the real Queen Elizabeth or what goes on in her head. But, it is strange to watch, what is basically an 8 hour biopic, and still not understand a character.

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You can tell Queen Elizabeth is a human because here is wearing civilian clothing whilst wearing a crown. The symbolism has left me dumbstruck. (Not.)

Because The Crown does deal with recent history, I felt like it should have made clearer the liberties the show took. (Especially when most episodes end with a prologue.) For example, Venetia Scott (Kate Phillips), Churchill’s supposed favoured secretary and all around fan girl never actually existed. Maybe versions of her did exist. But I felt the character was, quite frankly, annoying and not worth the amount of screen time they dedicated to her. I understand why they added her, but her character was so stereotypical and such an uninspired choice that I hated her time on screen. In The Crown, the fictional Venetia Scott is the woman who forced Churchill into action during The Great Smog of London in 1952, a meteorological crisis he supposedly ignored to outrageous degrees, resulting in the deaths of thousands. According to the brief research I have done, Churchill was never really heavily implicated in the crisis. Yes, thousands of people did die, but I don’t believe it was the great political upheaval The Crown portrays it to be. And Venetia Scott definitely did not exist.

Sugarcoating history is not what The Crown is here to do. There are the obvious choices of “exposing” Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s marriage; acknowledging the difficulties they must have faced as young royals. This isn’t a particularly brave or surprising choice – it’s what we all expected to see. What I thought was actually a powerful and very telling choice, was the fact that The Crown acknowledges Britain’s controversial colonial history. It was very jarring to hear native people routinely referred to as savages and to hear the Queen and Princess Margaret deliver speeches blatantly celebrating the erasal of Indigenous cultures. Quite clearly these attitudes are a product of their time, but it’s hard to hear the protagonists of a story harp on about how they “saved” the “savages” and that before colonisation their countries were “barren wastelands”. It’s a simple, but important choice. We do need to recognise the racist and paternalistic sentiments of colonialism, far more than than a queen’s marital struggles.

In acknowledging the racist attitudes of the time, The Crown successfully resists serialising Queen Elizabeth as a feminist hero. By feminist hero, I suppose I really mean a Queen who gives the finger to the constitution and does what appears to be logical and right. This is why The Crown and arguably Queen Elizabeth’s (fictional) reign is an exercise in futility. Most of the story lines begin with Elizabeth making promises she can’t possibly keep. With the beginning of each subplot, to viewers, the ending is all too clear. Therefore, it’s hard to sympathise with Elizabeth as much as The Crown would like us to. She is quite clearly trying her damn hardest to make everyone happy, but she is counselled to make the opposite decision. Every. Freaking. Time. Her counsellors rhetoric is never quite sound, but her loyalty to the crown is.

Another part of history that I thought the show did well to explore was Edward VIII’s abdication – a stain on the House of Windsor. It seems from all accounts, he was a selfish and smarmy man who at best let down his family, and at worst was a Nazi sympathiser. Even I have an implicit aversion to him, and I’m a 20 year old girl from Australia. The writing and performance of this character was probably the best in the show. We understood the pain of being rejected by his family, but never once forgot that he was an asshole who shirked his one responsibility in life and threw his brother under the bus, all the while complaining about the consequences of his actions. He disrespected his family and spent his life leeching off them, but at the same time his family took away everything he had. I personally toiled with disliking him but also understanding that the Church of England makes arbitrary rules based on concepts of morality long forgotten. Alex Jennings and the show’s writers did an excellent job of fleshing out a man who could be a sympathetic character, if he weren’t such a dick.

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John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Who would’ve thought?

In terms of performances, I’m sure you can imagine that they were all very stellar, and the casting was eery in terms of resemblance. In light of this, I’m just going to mention my standouts (which largely depends upon how interesting their characters were). Vanessa Kirkby, John Lithgow and Alex Jennings. These were the three actors that did wonders with their characters. Vanessa Kirkby’s Princess Margaret was flirtatious, feisty but also, as she puts it, slightly unhinged.Without so much as a flick of her cigarette, I was charmed. She was a delight to watch and truly commands the audience’s attention in every scene.  I thought the casting of John Lithgow as Winston Churchill was an interesting choice, especially considering the long list of tried and true Churchill actors. Well, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Lithgow is clearly a compelling actor, but what I was even more amazed by was his physical transformation. He looks nothing like Churchill and yet, in The Crown he just oozes Churchill.  A man so bound to his country and his own arrogance that he struggles to separate the two. The Crown‘s version of Churchill is a man who is no longer at war with Hitler, but at war with the perception of himself. He was not just a leader to his country, but to a young Queen, seeing as his duty to guide her during this difficult time. Lithgow deserves every award that comes his way.

At the end of the day, The Crown is a well made historical drama and it knows it. However, if you don’t like the subtleties of modern British politics, it probably won’t excite you purely because Queen Elizabeth is a model monarch who, so far, has not strayed from the path of duty and righteousness. Like Queen Elizabeth, The Crown will be well regarded, but will never break the ranks of its class and turn propriety into pre-eminence.

The Crown (2016): 8/10

 

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