If you have a Netflix account, it is probably old news that the streaming service’s original series The Crown, about the early reign of the United Kingdom’s Elizabeth II, is superb. But if you don’t have a Netflix account, you had no way to watch it until quite recently, when it was released on DVD.
English royalty has always been a popular subject for entertainment and has been the focus of several recently acclaimed shows, including Wolf Hall and Victoria. Though I have enjoyed the other shows mentioned, I’m not sure any other television show I have watched has delved into the complexities of imperial protocol and how one’s royal persona must overshadow any personal one quite like The Crown does.
Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) is the focus of the series, but she really is not the main character. The disembodied, abstract idea of the monarchy is the actual main character, and a major recurring theme is how becoming monarch essentially does away with one’s personal identity. The ramifications of this concept in regard to Elizabeth’s father George VI (Jared Harris, Mad Men) and her uncle Edward VIII (Alex Jennings, Victoria) are also explored.
The Crown is absorbing but not action-packed. It explores both family and political drama and how they intertwine in a surprisingly subtle way and is a thoughtful, often complex meditation on the nature of power and duty. It is about a world where a minor act of kindness extended to a sister or husband or loyal servant is fraught with symbolic consequences and could trigger a constitutional crisis.
The show is also visually stunning and cinematic. Netflix poured reportedly $10 million per episode into the program–a cost more associated with high-concept HBO fantasies like Game of Thrones and Westworld–than historic dramas. The result is gorgeous to behold and vividly brings to life not just 1950s London but also locations that range from Paris to Kenya. The budget also, no doubt, is a big reason why the cast is full of top-notch actors and actresses.
I thought Foy was an excellent Elizabeth. My previous exposure to Foy had been her role as a very different queen (Anne Bolelyn) in Wolf Hall, so I was pleasantly surprised by how different her performances were. Her Elizabeth is pragmatic, down-to-earth, and dutiful. She dislikes the restrictions imposed by her position but honors them, anyway. Foy also physically resembles a young Elizabeth.
Though Foy is the star of the show, there really is not a weak link anywhere in the casting or performances. Matt Smith (Doctor Who) stars as Elizabeth’s husband Philip, who decidedly does not handle his new position, the largely ceremonial role of consort, well. That could have been a pretty thankless role, but he manages to lend Philip some more depth than would be expected. Philip at times seems more insightful than his wife while also much more immature and petulant.
John Lithgow justifiably received a lot of praise for his depiction of an aging Winston Churchill. He is the right combination of gravitas, humor, and meanness. One of my favorite British actresses who always pops up in period pieces is Harriet Walter, and she also puts in a great performance as Churchill’s beloved wife Clementine. Jennings is an interesting Edward VIII, by turns both off-putting and sympathetic.
In a show full of great performances, I think my favorite ended up being Harris’s emotionally devastating role as Elizabeth’s father. Colin Firth played the same man in The King’s Speech, which focused much more on his battle against stuttering, but I really think Harris captures George VI as a person better. He is a man adored by his subjects and beloved by his family but personally unsuited and ill-prepared to be king, shortcomings that he is all too aware of. Harris captures both aspects of his personality well and doesn’t make them seem like a contradiction.
If you like historical dramas, family dramas, political dramas, or just good television, I highly recommend The Crown.
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Do you have a Netflix account? Have you watched The Crown? What’s your favorite television show about royalty? Tell us in the comments!