Netflix UK TV review: The Crown Season 5
James R | On 11, Nov 2022
“Dependable and constant. Capable of weathering any storm.” Those are the words used to describe the Royal Yacht Britannia at the start of The Crown Season 5 – and if you’re detecting a slight metaphor for the Queen here, wait until you get to the scenes in which people debate the relevance of the boat to modern society and whether it’s worth investing the money to keep something so old and outdated going. Subtle, The Crown is not.
Five seasons in, though, and that’s what we’ve come to expect from Netflix’s royal drama, along with lavish period production design and gorgeous visuals. The Crown’s return doesn’t disappoint. The period, this time round, is the 1990s, which brings events almost uncomfortably close to the present day, with the tragic death of Princess Diana looming on the horizon. The first half of Season 5 feels very much like it’s setting the stage for that – and, perhaps more than ever, you get the sense that the narrative is being shaped by the chronological events rather than the other way round.
In a series without such a strong cast – and without such stellar casting directors, who have always been the real stars of the show – that would be an issue, but the latest crop of star names build on the performances that have gone before and inherit nuances and tics that give a real sense of these characters ageing. The longer the series goes on, the less it becomes about how they each responded to a particular moment in time and more about how the monarchy weathered so many moments over the Queen’s reign – The Crown is not about Lizzie herself, but about “the system”, as Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) puts it in a pointed speech to Diana (Elizabeth Debicki).
After that opening episode about the creaking boat in need of an update – which will circle back come the finale to form the overarching framing device for the season – the Queen becomes almost a supporting character, which will come as a surprise after four Queen-centric seasons, even more so after her death only a couple of months before Season 5’s release. And yet that, in itself, is partly the point, and Imelda Staunton is superb at channeling the headstrong nature of Claire Foy’s young queen (wonderfully reprised at the season’s outset) and the authority and doubt of Olivia Colman’s stalwart monarch into something new. Here, she is a diminutive figure and one with a growing sense of loneliness and a hint of regret, as all her family blame her for their life problems – first world problems that are caused not by the Queen but by the system they’ve been born into, and the expectations and restrictions that come with it. Her determination to uphold those expectations is what has led to such a toxic environment for all involved.
That’s all very interesting and well observed, although it’s hard to muster much sympathy for people living in such privilege. Season 5, then, suffers by its decision to lean into that internal family conflict – what’s missing here is a wider sense of public society and the political landscape, something that was previously driven by the prime minister’s weekly (and episodic) presence at Buckingham Palace – from the friendly chats with John Lithgow’s Churchill to the glacial showdowns with Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher. Jonny Lee Miller is a brilliant addition as John Major, bringing a spexy charisma that many will find at odds with the figure as he’s known today, but he’s given disappointingly little screen time.
One of his key scenes is a fictitious meeting with Prince Charles (Dominic West), after a poll suggests that the public would rather see the Queen’s son rule in her stead – a sign of where the show’s attention is pointed. It’s a shame, then, that Dominic West doesn’t look or sound much like Prince Charles, although he does have his mannerisms down pat. Like Matt Smith’s Philip before him, the show does a welcome job of humanising and recontextualising perceptions of prince – most notably a segment devoted to the Prince’s Trust and its work with disadvantaged young people – even as it doesn’t shy away from Charles and Camilla’s taped intimate phone calls.
More rewarding is the time we spend with Princess Diana, who is played with an uncanny, willowy quality by Elizabeth Debicki. She retains the dark humour and innocence of Emma Corrin’s portrayal of Diana, with a growing self-awareness of her own outsider status within the family – and, ultimately, within her marriage. From her attraction to Dodi al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) to her revenge dress, it’s an excellent evocation of a journey that paved the way to the fateful events of 1997.
Charles and Diana’s divorce is abruptly arrived at midway through the season, as the series makes it clear that the spotlight has now switched to be on the pair. The other ensemble players, increasingly absorbed into the background as part of “the system”, instead get moments to shine – such as Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret, who has a beautifully poignant reunion with Pete Townsend (played with a gravelly soulfulness by a scene-stealing Timothy Dalton). The only weak link is Jonathan Pryce, who is excellent, but takes a while to settle into the role of Prince Philip and stop being Jonathan Pryce.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the best episode of Season 5’s first half is one devoted entirely to telling the story of Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw), who will do anything to achieve recognition and acceptance in British society – and that, inevitably, involves ingratiating himself with the royal family (while Dodi, we’re reminded, produced Chariots of Fire). From a brief return from Alex Jennings to a moving turn by Jude Akuwudike as Mohamed’s valet and personal Professor Higgins, it’s an absorbing portrait of the crown from a fresh perspective that we haven’t seen before. As the series nears its final chapter, that constant ability to keep moving forwards remains its greatest asset – new terrain, same dependable storytelling.