Published on December 1st, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Netflix’s The Crown tells the fascinating story of young Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a smart period piece — much more Mad Men than Downton Abbey.
In Canada, we’ve lived under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II since 1952, when she took the throne after the death of her father, George VI (we became a constitutional monarchy in 1982). However, aside from the occasional Royal wedding or the death of Princess Diana, I have never known, or cared, that much about the inner workings of the Royal Family. To me, the Queen is a face on money, or a picture in the back of a school classroom, without much meaning beyond that.
That has changed with The Crown, original programming from Netflix, who are here to chew bubblegum and kick ass in 2016. And they’re all out of bubblegum. If there is a race for HBO to become Netflix before Netflix became HBO, it looks like Netflix may be winning.
The Crown was recommended to me, but I was a bit hesitant at first. It looked like another Downton Abbey rip off. I enjoyed the first few seasons of Downton Abbey, but eventually you were able to see the scaffolding too clearly, and then it mostly struck me as melodramatic silliness. However, after sussing out The Crown, it is much more Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire than it is Downton Abbey.
The Crown tells the story of a 25-year-old Elizabeth II as she takes the throne with the passing of George VI. She is the second generation of reluctant monarch — both she and her father were thrust into the position by the scandalous abdication of her uncle, who gave up the throne to marry a divorced woman. Elizabeth’s father became King when she was 10-years-old, her life changing forever as she stepped into the spotlight.
Where do I start with praise for this show? I don’t want to oversell it, as it’s not the new The Sopranos or The Wire or something game changing. But it is a well-written, well-acted, brilliantly cast show that looks amazing to boot. Worth your time, even if you have no interest in the Royal Family.
Claire Foy plays Elizabeth with a mix of wide-eyed naivety and whip smart calculation; she’s an inexperienced young girl in a sexist world. She had a terrible education, but she’s no dummy. As she finds herself navigating both family and world politics, she learns to ask questions and make up her mind, but also to bend like a reed when necessary. This is one of the best female characters since Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul. Elizabeth isn’t just a woman who follows the plot because she’s supposed to; she lives and breathes. She makes mistakes, she has triumphs, and she is not even immune to some of the politically incorrect notions of the time.
The rest of the cast elevates the show as well. Jared Harris, one of my favourite character actors, is excellent as George VI, radiating not only love for his family, but also a ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’ sentiment. John Lithgow hands in a great performance as the aging, sometimes sickly Winston Churchill.
Matt Smith (Doctor Who) is another good choice, making Royal consort Prince Phillip empathetic; he’s a character we sometimes want to hiss at because he’s often trying to assert his male control over Elizabeth. But between the writing and Smith’s likeable nature, Phillip’s whining becomes more logical and palatable. After it’s the sexist 1950s in Britain, and he’s been emasculated, quite publicly.
For their relationship to work, he also can’t be a cartoon cad — she may be making some decisions out of love, but for us to believe in her character, we need her to be stronger than someone who would be with a scrub. The grey areas in some of these characters and situations are what make this show work. No one is an evil cartoon villain; they all have their good and their bad, just like real people. Phillip is torn between the naval career and even the name being ripped from him versus his duty to his wife and country. (He does get a bit more cartoonish near the end of the season, which is probably set up for season two).
Duty is one of the main themes of the show, which is often beautifully examined through the relationship at the heart of the show, between Elizabeth and her father (he appears in flashbacks after he passes). As she enters her own reluctant reign, she remembers his taking of the throne. Her uncle’s abdication was such a black mark upon the monarchy that both she and her father overcompensate in their duty. While it’s hard for some of us to fathom the rough spots of living in a palace and being a rich duke or duchess, in many ways, Elizabeth is in prison of both duty and public opinion.
I mentioned scaffolding earlier, and the only thing I’d tell the makers of The Crown is that they better have some good, new ideas ready for a second season. Toward the end of season one, I started to note that too often episodes were about Elizabeth wanting to hire someone for a position, but that wasn’t the next person in line to do that thing, and oh my goodness the scandal of deviating from proper Royal etiquette. It is interesting to watch the Queen navigate these things, but it become parody if these are the only stories we have to tell.
That said, the show has explored plenty of interesting avenues and relationships, so I have faith that they can draw more stories out of the lore. I’ve been looking up some of the incidents covered off by the show, suddenly finding that interest in the Monarchy that I never had before, and most of the tales are following reality, with some dramatic license taken, of course. The Royal Family has made a life out of trying to keep us out of their personal affairs both for personal privacy and to maintain dignity of the crown, but the show pulls back the curtain on a fascinating idea — that they are people too.