The Show: The Crown
The Network: Netflix
The Genre: Historical drama
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: Was there a much more lavish production last year than Netflix’s The Crown? With the monarchy headed up by a young Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith), we navigated wartime waters and muddy politics. This season, Peter Morgan expands to international horizons.
We get front-row seats to the usually closed-doors of the Royal Family. And do you know what? It’s not a pretty sight—especially in regards to Philip. Duke of Edinburgh he may be. However, it’s not fiction to speak of his characteristic arrogance, pompousness, and racial intolerance. If tension was high last season between the Queen and her husband, they continue to ascend. Meanwhile, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) navigates her personal life with frivolity, perhaps having lost investment in this whole regal franchise. Times are changing. And the Queen finds herself battling a personal crisis with her husband as well as external crisis—notably, the Suez Canal Crisis. Heavy lies the crown, indeed.
It would’ve been difficult to topple the glitzy first season of The Crown, but it remains insanely ravishing.
There’s so much within oneself to really want to approach The Crown with an upturned nose and slight derision. And it’s so easy to sneer at the production because who wants Netflix to dish out the dollars on some overly glitzy pomp about the history of a notoriously secretive institution like the Royal Family? Yet we cannot tear our eyes away. Elizabeth’s younger years were undoubtedly her most turbulent. Now, the spotlight is on the ‘modern age’ Royal Family. So why are we still so invested in the past?
There isn’t an answer. But look at similar, if shabbier, productions like ITV’s Victoria, or Downton Abbey. Then look back at The Crown. If last season displayed steely bravado from Foy’s Elizabeth (especially when she clashed with Philip over bending the knee) this season looks set to explode with scandal.
Philip: “Giving me lists, sending me instructions, do this, don’t do that; wear this, don’t wear that; say this, don’t say that—can you imagine anything more humiliating?”
Elizabeth: “Yes. As a matter of fact, I can. I’ve learnt more about humiliation in the past few weeks than I would’ve hoped in a lifetime.”
The Crown doesn’t shy away from Philip’s alleged, notorious bad behaviour. Except—we knew of Philip’s ‘scandal’ regardless. There’s a strange urge to see it play out on-screen, wonderfully done by Matt Smith, as if it’ll satiate us further. It does. We already have our preconceptions of the Royal Family, and not all of them are true. Maybe that’s why The Crown works. It’s not telling us everything remarkable we don’t know: it’s dishing it out fair-and-square. Yet while that logic lacks certain magic, The Crown retains an inimitable aura of glossiness and wonder.
Again, it’s the impeccable casting that truly makes the show.
John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill is a big departure from the show, among many others. Ben Miles and Jared Harris are also big names, sorely missed. However, you don’t become one of the biggest successes of the previous television year and end up with no British talent scrambling for roles. Game of Thrones’ Qyburn, Anton Lesser, is neatly drafted in as the mild-mannered snake of a PM, Harold MacMillan. Meanwhile, we bid a fond farewell to Jeremy Northam’s troubled Anthony Eden in a messy, manipulative Suez crisis.
Obviously, where there have been sad exits, there have also been excellent additions. Nonetheless, season one’s anchors Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby shine. Smith in particular excels with his focal screen-time. It’s always been difficult truly empathising with Elizabeth and Philip and it remains that way. We understand them, sure, but their face-off in their private yacht, the climax of a tumultuous whirlwind of rumours and scandal is surely a highlight.
On the other hand, Kirby so far is given too little attention. We get the sense it’ll change as free-spirit Margaret is only beginning to blossom. The instant chemistry she strikes up with Matthew Goode as Margaret navigates society beyond the constraints of her title is refreshingly striking. As we see her collapse in rage and anger and bitterness over her half-hearted engagement announcement, and contrast it to the euphoria she becomes almost drunk on after sending that infamous portrait to the press, is addictive viewing. Margaret’s journey is so frantic in its ups and downs that Kirby’s often heartbreaking depiction of a caged spirit screaming to break free is impossible to tear your eyes from.
If anything, Kirby proves in one episode she really needs more screen-time.
The Crown has proven the strength of its ensemble, but the distribution of screen-time thus far is somewhat skewed.
Over the course of the first four episodes, The Crown bounces around storylines somewhat clumsily. Unlike the smooth story arc of season one, set in the prime of young Elizabeth’s reign, we view Philip’s adventures abroad from a very non-linear perspective.
The way the story does hop from place to place and character to character is a nice switch-up from how The Crown could easily have played the story. Though the actual action of the Suez crisis (wonderfully shot) was really swept under the mattress, the repercussions are tragic as they spiral rapidly out of control.
RELATED l The Crown: Season One Verdict
Sometimes, The Crown shows off just why it’s so exalted. And clever. The sad juxtaposition of a deflated Elizabeth watching the vibrant ballet, or Vanessa Kirby’s breakdown as Margaret, drunk and angry and human, in stark contrast to Elizabeth and Philip’s restrained bedtime routine wastes no time. We get a straight-up eye into the difference between the sisters.
However, it does feel like The Crown is just doddling about at the moment. Far too much screen-time was given to Philip’s adventures abroad as well as the uncomfortable divorce storyline. It served as a C-plot, yes. But it took up so much space that between Philip, Lt. Commander Parker, Elizabeth and Margaret, it left very little space for the two true screen-grabbers. That is Kirby and the crown herself: Foy.
Smith does punch through an excellent portrayal of Philip, ready to combust at this point of his marriage. It’s a heavy reminder of last year’s turmoil, when a proud Philip initially refused to kneel before his wife. And yes, the change of scenery was very welcome—and beautiful—but it certainly felt more like the Philip show than The Crown, at least until Kirby owned the fourth episode.
One simply cannot write any review of The Crown without dedicating a section to the impossibly gifted Claire Foy.
There is very little to fault about Claire Foy. Every time she’s on-screen, she swells delightfully. Not only does her acting prowess mean she commands her one-on-one sessions with heavyweights Victoria Hamilton, John Lithgow and Jeremy Northam—to name a few—we can’t ignore her sizzling chemistry with Matt Smith, either.
You could cut the tension with a knife in their Britannia scene. Smith’s broody Philip is matched exceptionally with Foy’s trademark big eyes. It’s vulnerability Elizabeth rarely allows to bleed through her royal physique. Via those very small outlets, that’s where Foy shines and distinguishes herself from everyone else. You’d be hard-pressed to find fellow actresses who’ve quite mastered the art of micro-expressions as well as Foy has.
Her shaky, intimidated breathing as she watches the ballet says everything. The words aren’t on the script. But the feeling blazes in her wary gaze; her fraught stance. That slight quiver of the lips. Even as she narrates Philip’s tapes, Foy’s stuttered reading and wanderlust in her gaze oozes love. It’s so jarring when we see Elizabeth carry out her duties to a point where the coldness and distance is almost like watching two separate characters. And we’re not the only ones who notice Elizabeth’s inability to notice the damage she can sometimes wreak:
Eileen: “I’ve had enough of ‘favours’. To you people. My entire adult life has been favours—to you. You people aren’t even remotely aware of the cost of the damage to families and marriages in your service.”
The growing detachment of Elizabeth the young, smiling queen to the emergence of Elizabeth, Queen of the Commonwealth, the crown—has never been clearer. Foy’s transition from the naive monarch to a tour-de-force is something really beyond exceptional. And it’ll never stop being exceptional.
FINAL VERDICT: The Crown is one for the Royal Family adorers and sceptics alike—it’s grandiose, full of pomp, sixties level scandals—it’s sheer addiction.
Truly, The Crown never fails to catch you off-guard with how beautiful it all is. Lorne Balfe’s overwhelming, moving score drives the most powerful of scenes, gorgeously directed largely by Philip Martin. As much as we’d like to devour the script and the award-winning performances, The Crown acknowledges its grandeur and justifies it majestically. Undoubtedly, it is not so much a treat on television to binge as it is an all-round experience.
Oh yes, the performances are spectacular. The odds of Claire Foy not picking up that Emmy for her second (and final) performance as Elizabeth should be null. But as much as Foy is a powerhouse, so is the supporting cast. Nina Gold and Robert Sterne haven’t put a foot wrong casting-wise, which is remarkable for a production this size, and of requiring performances at the grade of iconic.
However, the big takeaway here is that we should not let Foy’s impressive, near-perfect performance steal the limelight away from the stunning production. To every minute detail. If anything, The Crown has, in its first four episodes, somehow upped the game from its widely-acclaimed first season. And that is quite some feat.