The Crown Review: A Mesh of History Books and Melodrama

Netflix's pricy royal family drama The Crown has stand-out performances from John Lithgow and Matt Smith, but lacks story...

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Crown (and, you know, British history). It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

The great cliche about the British is that we’re a stoic lot, emotionally reserved and only ever prone to bouts of “hayfever” when Bambi’s mum dies.

Netflix’s £100m ($130 million) production of The Crown tries to buck this trope with a 10-part series dramatizing the personal and political events surrounding the first decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, starting in 1952.

One part Downton Abbey, one part House Of Cards (the original, of course), The Crown never quite decides if it wants to commit itself to a political drama or total supposition about the inner workings of the Court of St James.

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Written by Peter Morgan, the schizophrenia at the heart of the series is not hard to explain. Morgan made his name as a proven monarchical script writer with his Oscar-winning film The Queen starring Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen. Before that, his television film The Deal and its sequel, The Special Relationship, charted the political chicanery behind the rise of Tony Blair (Sheen) and his subsequent relationship with President Clinton (Dennis Quaid). From this came Morgan’s play The Audience, fictionalizing the Queen’s weekly — and entirely confidential — audiences with her eleven prime ministers over the decades (again with Mirren).

The Crown, then, is really Morgan’s natural sequel to his work to-date. Spanning from 1947, it is punctuated by the death of King George VI (Jared Harris) in 1952, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and concludes with the retirement of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) in 1955.

Foy is perfectly cast as Elizabeth: coy, but with a burgeoning appreciation of her own power as the years go by. There are glimpses of an adolescence snatched away and a happiness with her husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith) that subtly shifts to a fatigue as the burden of her responsibilities as sovereign become clear to them both.

As the series develops, it’s impossible not to compare Foy to Helen Mirren. Morgan’s scripts continually fail to add any real sense of insight or daring into this young Queen. Foy’s character, rather than the actress herself, is boring from start to finish, unremarkable beyond the fact of her position with little by way of conciliatory humor or fun.

Mirren’s rendering of the older Queen is more complex, appreciating the dutiful Elizabeth while not shying away from showing the pressures of her responsibilities to country and family. Foy, by contrast, plays the Queen as a dry historical report. It is a lost opportunity to write and portray a young firebrand reacting angrily to the uncle whose abdication essentially killed her father and who is in dire need of tutelage from the older Churchill.

Indeed, it is precisely this which makes Smith’s Prince Philip the life and soul of the party. He perfectly captures the emasculation of the Duke of Edinburgh, his thrashing against the cell walls as he is denied the right to give his children his surname and is restrained from having any modernizing influence on the monarchy. Smith’s relationship with Foy and his claustrophobia in the suffocating establishment around him is the crux of the success of the series, not least because he, like the role of the Doctor’s companion, is the only empathetic human being in this strange world of protocol and privilege.

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However, the break-out role for the series is Lithgow as Churchill. At first, he seems to be horribly miscast, his height and resemblance make him an antithesis at best, but his performance as the ailing prime minister is a masterclass in execution and pathos.

In Churchill’s Secret, Michael Gambon (the only other actor to portray Churchill so advanced in years), played the role with a humorless last roar, but it is Lithgow who truly inhabits the spirit of a man facing off against the years in all their cruelty with a believability and touching defiance of one final battle.

Smith and Lithgow may own the series, but there are unexpected supporting gems too. Harris’ incredibly powerful display of the dying King George is a deeply moving portrayal of an accidental monarch (famously struggling with the stammer so excellently portrayed in The King’s Speech). Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret is wonderfully played with the believably vulnerable capriciousness of youth as her love and life are put beyond her control. Despite the cast never quite being equally ensemble, Pip Torrens as Private Secretary Tommy Lascelles, Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary, and Harriet Walter as Clementine Churchill stand out as giving class and resonance to their supporting duties.

Yet, beyond some interesting characterization, there is decidedly little by way of plot. The show never decides if it wants to be a political tour of the 20th century or Downton Abbey.

Over the season, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on trivial issues, like Elizabeth feeling unintelligent and needing a tutor, or Margaret’s romance with Peter Townsend. The latter, a noted sore point in the relationship between Margaret and Elizabeth, is actually rather dull, as are the details of Philip’s descent into a malaise.

The oscillating amount of time spent on the political and family plot threads mean that neither is satisfactorily represented. Churchill’s stroke and the conspiracy to keep it from parliament and the country for weeks is over far too quickly, concluding with a slap on the wrists for what was essentially a coup d’etat. Anthony Eden’s (Jeremy Northam) drug addiction for chronic pain is a seminal explanation as to the Suez Crisis, yet it is reduced to a closing vignette of him passed out, obsessing over Gamal Abdel Nasser (Amir Boutrous). It’s is an odd juxtaposition of political drama when the previous 10 episodes have been so semantically familial.

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The major problem with The Crown is it hopes to do for each of its multi-faceted characters what Morgan did with The Queen. There simply isn’t enough time to give each interaction, each moment, the same nuance and through-the-looking-glass insight they deserve as he did with the 2006 film. Nevertheless, it does manage to produce moments of exuberant brilliance.

George VI’s illness is heartbreaking, as is the particularly poignant scene where Harris wears a Christmas crown and sings with carolling well-wishers as he breaks down in tears at the sight of his family.

Edward VII (Alex Jennings) enjoys an unexpected rehabilitation from the circumstances of his abdication over Wallace Simpson (Lia Williams), and it is delightful there is more here than a pastiche of villainy. Jennings gives a subtle, often moving portrayal of a man-king who lost the position of a god with the striking image where he plays the bagpipes, weeping silently, as his niece is coronated.

Again, Lithgow’s Churchill deserves special attention. The death of his invented secretary (Kate Phillips) and his return to fighting form in a hospital is touching, particularly as such time was dedicated to exploring her falling in love with his younger self. The true story of how Clementine burnt Churchill’s portrait by Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane) because of Churchill’s hatred for it is deeply moving, as is the discussion between the two men, on the deaths of their children. Churchill’s third act, his second premiership and the final decade before his death, seldom receive consideration and Lithgow embodies the ravishes of age with precisely the kind of character development the show warrants.

The meshing of political reality and the melodrama of the royal family leaves an odd taste. Instead of a greater understanding of the trials and tribulations of the monarchy, there is an inadvertent resentment that things were so good for them at the same time as rationing and a deadly smog were affecting millions in post-war Britain. That the audience is meant to be worried about whether a new monarch feels intelligent, or whether or not her sister can marry an equerry, is absurdly detached.

Hans Zimmer’s opening music and the Game Of Thrones-esque camera weave through the eponymous crown is a captivating opening, but both attempt to give gravitas to a show that has little. Rupert Gregson-Williams (a colleague of Zimmer) develops a score for the series which is reminiscent of Inception, and while it builds up some more powerful moments particularly well, it is let down by the host show itself.

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Altogether, The Crown is a spectacle of cosmetic accuracy, but with little innovation in script or characters. It lacks the intimacy so integral to Morgan’s other work and suffers from being overly serious, all while being populated by fictitious liberties with none of the impish fun of the comparable The King’s Speech.

British period dramas, written with a huge American audience in mind, seldom feel realistic because they inject such emotional or passionate hyperbole into such stratified, emotionally reserved characters and situations that the juxtaposition comes across as melodramatic.

Will season two deliver more? Potentially, if the show takes risks and starts to enjoy itself and doesn’t simply retell the story of the Queen’s reign as if it were a history book.