This weekend sees the premiere of an epic new costume drama. Charting the life of Queen Elizabeth II, and of Britain following the Second World War, the series is the kind of thing traditional British telly does best. Where can you find this sumptuous landmark event? Not on BBC One, or even ITV: The Crown is a Netflix original.
Arriving hot on the heels of Victoria and boasting a reported budget of £100 million, the programme is a statement of intent for the streaming service. In the years since its launch in the UK, the subscription site has increasingly diversified its library of content to match its global audience, both in terms of nationality and age. After US comic book actioners, French political intrigue and Latin American crime thrillers, Netflix is coming to Britain.
The show is created by a smorgasbord of top-drawer British talent, from writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry to Wolf Hall’s Claire Foy and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith. You can feel the star wattage in every second of screen-time; based on the The Crown’s opening episodes, this is money exceptionally well spent.
Claire Foy shines as the young Elizabeth, who finds herself facing the prospect of becoming Queen at just 25. We meet her on the eve of her wedding to Prince Philip (Smith), a marriage smiled upon by her father, Albert Windsor, aka. King George VI (Jared Harris). It’s telling that we begin not with the ceremony, or even with Foy’s preparations, but with George coughing up blood into a toilet; a decidedly unostentatious, even shocking, opening shot. From the off, this is the royal family as we’ve never seen them before.
Jared Harris, who has experience of playing British from AMC’s Mad Men, is reliably fantastic as George VI, gently stammering his way through the king’s final days. It’s a performance that could easily be overshadowed by Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning turn in the same role just a few years ago, but Tom Hooper’s feature film is immediately banished from your mind. That’s partly because Harris is so marvellously understated, from his forced chuckles in front of Elizabeth, as he explains the day-to-day duties of a monarch, to his held-back tears at the singing of In the Bleak Midwinter during a Christmas carol session. That low-key intimacy is what marks The Crown out as something special; it brings us in close to the grandeur, finding the passion amid the pageantry. So when we sweep out wider for occasions such as weddings and funerals, the scale is doubly impressive; The Crown manages to be small enough to dwarf the competition. The King’s Speech, with its narrower focus, might have been on the bigger screen, but it looks tiny by comparison.
Morgan, of course, is no stranger to balancing the personal and the political, having made himself something of the royal family’s on-screen biographer, thanks to 2006’s The Queen and his more recent play, The Audience. His pen is just as sharp here, packing nine years into Season 1’s 10 episodes, with shooting already underway on Season 2.
The dynastic feel of the ensemble is established right off the bat, with the delicate mixing of new and old generations. While we spend most of our time with Elizabeth and Philip, there’s room for Elizabeth’s uncle, the abdicating Edward (played with a superbly dry hint of dependency by Alex Jennings), and the mourning Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton). They each get a chance to make an impression, with one episode climaxing on a glance between daughter and mother – a moment that packs a surprisingly powerful punch, thanks to both actresses’ sublime facial expressions.
Foy is nothing short of remarkable. Picking up the Queen’s accent flawlessly, she turns that familiar posh chirrup into more than just an impersonation. After her ambiguous turn at the heart of Season of the Witch, she’s come in leaps and bounds, from Wolf Hall’s calculating and ill-fated Anne Boleyn to her ruthless Lady Macbeth, opposite James McAvoy in London’s West End. But she’s never been better than here – you can see the determination, fear and tragedy of her new responsibility in her widening eyes alone.
“While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else: Elizabeth Mountbatten,” her mother warns in a standout speech that feels important yet not overplayed. “She has now been replaced by Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is that The Crown must win. Must always win.”
By her side, Smith brings a surprising depth to a person who is mostly known as a caricature. He’s a supportive husband, yes, but reveals many sides to his broadly cheerful kindness, from his politically incorrect remarks about a Kenyan tribe chief’s headdress to his quiet frustration at having to give up the Mountbatten family name. After an introductory episode that gives us time to root for their romance, we watch as what would have been a life of her playing the doting wife to his military hero is inverted, something that sparks tension as much as loyalty.
Their chemistry is great – it takes a lot to make you feel such sympathy for these very rich people – but Philip almost plays second fiddle to Elizabeth’s other male ally: Winston Churchill. John Lithgow is clearly enjoying himself as the bellowing, ageing PM – “Did they tell you I can be a monster?” he asks a new female employee. “They were right.” – but he also brings a welcome dose of politics to the table, as he fights to hold onto his job, by holding back Elizabeth’s coronation.
Winston’s confrontations with his cabinet are echoed in the pressures placed upon the Queen and her kin, from George’s cheeky handling of Anthony Eden (the enjoyably slimy Jeremy Northam) to the illicit romance between Princess Margaret (a scene-stealing Vanessa Kirby) and long-time helper of the household Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). It’s the show’s ability to dabble in such waters without turning trashy that acts as the ultimate seal of approval. Morgan is no stranger to embellishing history with fiction for dramatic gain, but he’s rarely found the balance so seamlessly; the series manages to be soapy but still classy, swooning yet avoiding the occasionally hammy dialogue of ITV’s Victoria, all the while accompanied by a rousing, unobtrusive soundtrack.
The result is gorgeous to look at, from the costumes to the deftly chosen locations (Ely Cathedral stands in for Westminster Abbey), but Daldry’s direction anchors us in the everyday, grounding every issue of state in the quakes felt through Elizabeth and Philip’s home. With US money footing the bill for one of the most expensive TV series ever made, you could be forgiven for expecting all gloss and little grit, or a fluffy piece of propaganda for the royal family. The Crown does something much better for their image: it humanises them.
As the fog draws in and the weight of The Crown grows, Morgan and Daldry craft a story that offers a compelling look at post-WWII Britain, an engrossing tale of power-grappling in parliament, and a moving study of devotion – both to one’s country and to one’s family. You can see the effort and the emotion in every detail, from Foy’s headstrong stare to Philip’s slow slouch up the stairs of Buckingham Palace, tailing behind their children. Sumptuous, stunning and stirring, The Crown is a statement of intent from Netflix. The statement? It’s bowing to nobody. It doesn’t have to: this is a roaring, royal success.
The Crown is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix