Late to the party as usual, I didn’t expect to enjoy “The Crown” as much as I did when I finally tuned in last month. Needless to say I wound up eating my pre-viewing impression and was soundly hooked as I binged Season One. Season Two, recently available for streaming on Netflix, has only solidified my admiration for this show.
What makes “The Crown” so addictive? There’s the obvious: American fascination with royalty, American fascination with the very rich, American fascination with scandal (real or imagined)—you get the picture. However, there’s more in play. While the dates and events leading up to and during World War II are generally known, dramas centered on life in England’s post-war period haven’t received nearly as much exposure in America. Because Elizabeth has reigned for decades, most of us have no image of her other than the formerly middle-aged, now elderly woman she is. It comes as quite a shock to realize how very young she was—only 25—when she became Queen, so seeing her at this stage of her life is certainly a new and refreshing experience.
Ah, but many ask: Is what we see on Netflix true? Aside from the fact that we’ll never really know who said what to whom in so many situations dramatized in “The Crown,” some details tend to nag. Not to be nit-picky, but I find it very hard to believe that the subject of Elizabeth’s regnant name was not discussed prior to her father’s death; she had been heiress presumptive for years at a time when George VI was not exactly in the best of health. “Spontaneity” is simply not in the monarchy’s lexicon. In addition, certain aspects of Season Two’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode were especially troublesome (and Michael C. Hall was a surprisingly awful JFK). Why was there no mention of President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the 1930’s? Given the senior Kennedy’s position, JFK would have been familiar with court protocol unlike the bumbler we see on the screen. And JFK’s being jealous of Jackie’s star power? By all accounts this was a marriage shrewdly made, designed to showcase her style and sophistication as essential political assets. He knew it, she knew it, and by all means the strategists knew it and deployed accordingly.
These quibbles are relatively minor considering how well “The Crown” works as drama. Season One is one long spellbinder featuring a very young woman acceding to a position of power while her country was still coping with the privations of World War II, all at a time when her assumption of the throne put unimaginable strain on her marriage. Season Two gets off to a slow start—as Elizabeth aptly observes, Philip’s whining and whingeing is indeed tedious, and unfortunately drags on for three episodes. But then “The Crown” hits its stride, with one fascinating story after another: Philip besmirched by the scandal of the divorce of his boon companion, Mike Parker, and later, his suspected involvement in the Profumo Affair; the Duke of Windsor’s attempt to obtain a position of influence in England as details regarding his (and the Duchess of Windsor’s) involvement with Hitler and the Nazi regime before the war sour his prospects; the back story of Philip’s unhappy childhood, the shocking loss of his favorite sister and her family and his seemingly blind eye to the emotional needs of his own son; and best of all, Elizabeth’s dance with Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana. I don’t think we see her enjoying any other moment in this show as much as his whirling her around the floor to “Begin the Beguine.”
Netflix really shot the works in the casting department for “The Crown.” John Lithgow deserves every accolade he’s received as Churchill. I enjoy Jared Harris in everything he’s done, even (and especially) as the scheming Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.” His George VI is a solid presence, and it’s rather interesting that both he and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) played the character so memorably though neither resembles the frail man who actually reigned. Pip Torrens’ multi-layered performance as Royal Secretary Tommy Lascelles, the courtier you love to hate, is fun to watch, and Greg Wise makes an incredibly suave Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps best of all, Alex Jennings’ performance as the Duke of Windsor, a man eternally denied what he wanted most and blind to the ramifications of his actions, may be the stand-out of both seasons.
But the heart of “The Crown” is its trio of core actors: Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Philip) and especially Vanessa Kirby (Margaret). The gentleman goes first: Matt Smith does an excellent job with a difficult and at times impossible character. To say Philip is mercurial is an understatement, yet while Smith shows the recklessness and impatience of the man, he makes us understand his frustrations. Equally skilled at displaying Philip’s tender side, Smith delivers the character’s speech at his 10th anniversary party, in all in its complexity, to perfection.
Claire Foy’s portrayal of the young Elizabeth could not be better. Her range is a marvel–from being overwhelmed at the father’s untimely death and her assumption of the crown to issues with Philip and Margaret and the intricacies of dealing with a parade of prime ministers, competing courtiers and her own mother, she’s just about perfect. She’s perhaps at her best when an anvil falls and she can’t show emotion. Watch her gather herself in the blink of an eye and just go on. This is most evident in the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode when she presses a friend to reveal the cutting things Jackie said about her at a dinner party–the merest flicker of hurt crosses her face as she struggles to shrug it off. Yet her best scene in Season Two, aside from dancing with Nkrumah, may be her discussion with Lord Altrincham (astutely played by John Heffernan), well-meaning yet vocal critic of Elizabeth’s performance and public image as monarch. While it was her choice to meet with him, she really doesn’t want to be there. Yet Ms. Foy makes it equally apparent that Elizabeth knows she must listen to this man’s suggestions in order to improve—she owes it to the country. The actor’s skill in this scene is only topped by the Queen’s delivery of her first Christmas address on television—her awkwardness and discomfort are palpable as she gamely pushes through.
But it’s the brilliantly nervy performance of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret that keeps you glued to the tube for “Just one more episode!” as you binge. She delivers on a tremendous opportunity, playing a character whose existence threatens to become as empty as that of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. What a showcase Ms. Kirby has: the Peter Townsend mess, her clashes with her sister (or, more accurately, the institutions of crown, church and government) and her involvement with and eventual marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Ms. Kirby and Mr. Goode manage to maintain an exquisitely slow burn during their characters’ courtship; their interactions during the episode “Beryl,” with her insinuations and his ambiguity (sexual and otherwise) are riveting. In a way you’re sorry to see them married. And so will they be.
The next season of “The Crown” will skip ahead to the early 1970’s, and the actors we’ve enjoyed so much will be replaced. Olivia Coleman, marvelous in “Broadchurch” among many other things, will inherit Claire Foy’s tiara. I have no doubt the show will retain its quality.