Netflix UK TV review: The Crown Season 1 (spoilers)
Ivan Radford | On 08, Jan 2017
We take a spoiler-filled look at the second half of Netflix’s The Crown. Not seen the whole season? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
“Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Pull away the veil and you have an ordinary young woman.” That’s the shrewd, bitter assessment of the brilliantly pathetic Duke of Windsor (Alex Jenning), in Episode 5 of The Crown – and it gets right to the heart of Netfix’s costume drama. The ambitious, sumptuous production is all about exploring that divide between the divine and the domestic, the throne and the bedroom – the magic of majesty rendered transparent.
But that’s a much harder thing to achieve than it sounds: a 10-episode series about a wealthy woman who effectively capitulates to the male-driven world around her is hardly uplifting viewing. Surely, the only way to strip the monarchy down into normal people is to criticise the whole shebang?
That’s where the Duke of Windsor comes in. After four episodes of deftly developing the characters of Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith), Peter Morgan’s script doubles down on the black sheep of the family, wheeling the once-king who abdicated to George out from the Parisian shadows and into the London limelight.
Smoke and Mirrors, as the episode is aptly called after the smog-bound Episode 4, presents us with the coronation of Elizabeth, which she has allowed Philip to oversee, in an attempt to placate his pathetic feelings of inadequacy. Smith continues to do wonders for Philip’s characterisation, managing to balance a loving, loyal dad and husband with a whiny boy who is too insecure to kneel before his wife. But he’s also a modern-thinker who instigates the idea of televising the coronation – in some ways, he’s on the right side of history, and Morgan’s smart enough to use such moments to give his characters more shades of grey than you’d expect.
It’s that TV broadcast, meanwhile, that allows the royal family to exclude the Duke of Windsor, without him not seeing any of it. And so we get the best of both worlds, witnessing the ceremony unfold in hushed close-up, full of the reverence and awe of the ritual – and watching it in the Duke’s living room, complete with his pithy commentary. Jenning is possibly the best thing in the show, amusingly jealous and sad (his nicknames for the Archbishop of Canterbury – Auld Lang Swine – and Elizabeth – Shirley Temple – are fantastic), but also a figure of faint tragedy, as he stands in his garden and plays his bagpipes to nobody, the crown still remote and out-of-reach. The show pulls away the veil, but still keeps it in place.
With Foy’s superb turn already established, the series’ success lies in being able to flesh out such supporting characters. “The Crown must always win,” the Queen Mother orders her daughter, but without a convincing ensemble, Elizabeth’s dilemma between her personal and professional duty doesn’t ring true.
Which brings us to Vanessa Kirby, who gets a wonderful chance to shine in the back half of the season. Her doomed romance with divorcee Peter makes her an easy figure for both glamour and sympathy, but Kirby takes that basic set-up and runs with it. A brief phone call between them, when Margaret invites her sister for dinner, because she wants to ask her for permission to marry Peter, consists almost entirely of the word “Oh”, a chirruping syllable given a different meaning every time. It’s those small touches that reinforce the chemistry between Foy and Kirby, who make a perfect pair of siblings.
With the Queen Mother pushing the Queen to separate Peter and Margaret, by posting him in Brussels and making them wait until she’s 25 to get engaged, the sisters are destined to fall further and further apart – and those differences are captured in Episode 8, as Margaret takes on Elizabeth’s duties while she’s on a gruelling worldwide tour with Philip. The result is delightful, as Margaret gets tipsy, rewrites speeches and hosts balls with a devil-may-care attitude to gossip, respectability and pretty much everything else. It’s here that the production’s attention to detail really glistens, as the costume design leaves Foy’s Elizabeth frequently wearing duller clothes than Kirby’s Margaret, whose dresses are brighter, more colourful and, as she becomes more forthright, gives way to her wearing trousers. Netflix’s The Crown is one of the most expensive TV shows ever made, but while part of the fun is enjoying just how good it looks, the show never forgets to do something with its looks.
Like the Duke and Margaret, Winston Churchill also becomes an increasingly complex figure. It’s hard to believe that it’s John Lithgow underneath that make-up, accent and glasses, but he inhabits the role fantastically. That’s never more obvious than in the penultimate episode, which spends half of its runtime in a stuffy room with Winston having his likeness painted. 30 minutes literally watching paint dry should be dull, but the result is anything but, as Morgan’s scene drips nuance from its canvas; Churchill, whose painting is being done for his 80th birthday, looks visibly more sunken and sallow by the minute, only drawing out the contrast between the elderly subject and the modernist (Graham Sutherland) holding the brush.
We gradually spend more time in Churchill’s home as well, giving us a greater understanding of this ever more fragile man – Episode 4’s gripping smog subplot, which counters his resilience to the political tide against him with the sad loss of his assistant, is our gateway into his personal life. By the time we hit the end of Season 1, he’s past his prime, destined to step down and let Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden take his place. He, of course, doesn’t want to, and it’s that portrait of a stubborn, aged politician that teases out the themes of sacrificing oneself for one’s country; in a way, Winston and Elizabeth have to do the same thing.
Once again, it’s hardly the formula for a stirring narrative, especially in the modern age. If this were complete fiction, Elizabeth would tear them all a new one and assert her own authority, to hell with the whole thing. But The Crown is constrained by history, and so it does the next best thing: it allows us to share her frustration with it. Rather than endorse the patriarchal system the Queen is part of, it empathises with the struggle of having to live within it.
Episode 7 is the climax of that difficult task, as Elizabeth takes it upon herself to give herself an education. “I know almost nothing,” she tells her mother, when President Eisenhower is invited by Churchill to a state dinner and she realises she cannot hold her own in conversation. “You know when to keep your mouth shout,” comes the prim, proper reply.
Before we can sigh at a show that is happy with this conclusion, Lizzy has already hired a tutor to teach her, well, everything, from the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and what Eisenhower is interested in.
At the same time, she’s asserting herself in the appointment of her private secretary, as old guard Tommy Lascelles is about to retire, paving the way for Elizabeth to appoint Martin, her former secretary when she was a princess. Tommy, though, is having none of it. And while she’s overruled in the end for the institution’s favoured candidate, she takes that frustration and uses it to fuel her authority in her relationship with Winston.
Winston, of course, is not a well bunny, with a second stroke causing the Eisenhower dinner to be called off. When Elizabeth finds out that he and Lord Salisbury have been covering this up, she takes them both to task. The resulting confrontation, as she basically dresses them down like a teacher scolding naughty schoolboys, is one of the best – and most satisfying – moments in the series, ridiculing them for being “English, male and upper class” and warning Churchill to consider his response “in light of the respect that my rank and my office deserve not that which my age and gender might suggest”. Lithgow’s Churchill is trembling and weak; you can see that her words do have an effect.
That success helps drive her to a happy bedtime sesh with her husband – their marriage is always playing out in the background of the show – but alas, it’s the last time they’re to be so cheerful and intimate. The show ends, after the unsatisfied, sorry-for-himself Philip has taken to drinking with his friends away from the palace, with him being sent to Australia for a long state trip. Smith continues to impress, putting every inch of his height into the role, even managing to bully their son into doing manly activities without overselling the melodrama and symbolism.
Meanwhile, Margaret, we learn, still has to wait until Parliament approves her engagement with Peter, presuming she wants to stay a member of the royal family. Elizabeth isn’t happy with having lied to her sister, something that’s been caused by the Church of England, by her mother, and heck, by the Prime Minister. It’s trick to name anyone that Elizabeth isn’t in conflict with – a well-chosen point for a closing chapter.
And, of course, who should surface once more but the unspoken star of the show, the Duke of Windsor? Talking on the phone to his niece, he waxes lyrical of the shared fate he has with Margaret, who has a forbidden love that captures the public’s imagination, then talks of The Crown, his life’s other great love. A love that he can never have. “We are half-people,” he argues, “the human and crown engaged in a civil war which never ends.” “I understand the agony you feel,” he adds, “and I am here to tell you it will never leave you.”
It’s another key speech for the whole season, but once again, it doesn’t come from inside the royal household, where such views as their God-given right to rule come across as mildly entitled when the Queen Mother declares them. Rather, it’s almost whispered in the cowardly tones of Jenning’s sour mouth, a character who manages to tap into the internal dilemma facing Elizabeth, but still keep that veil in tact.
We end the season with Elizabeth making that sacrifice, forbidding Margaret to marry Peter and remain part of the family, to preserve the integrity of the monarchy. “Don’t dress betrayal up as a favour,” sneers Philip, but Foy’s performance keeps us firmly on her side, humanising the decision she’s had to make. From a young princess, she has grown over the 10 episodes to, in the words of the photographer taking her picture, forget Elizabeth Windsor and only be Elizabeth Regina. But we know that as soon as that camera lens goes away, she’s still a person.
It’s not an easy job to create sympathy for the pain she must go through in pursuit of something nobler (albeit old-fashioned), but The Crown manages to do it. It’s been a huge crowd-pleaser for Netflix, but the reason it’s had that impact is easy to underrate; it might have achieved transparency in its human drama, but that doesn’t make it less magic.
Episode 10 teases the bigger picture that surrounds the Queen, as the country changes. There’s Prime Minister Eden offending Egypt’s Colonel Nasser in his talks about the Aswan Dam, not to mention the final shot of him being slouched over a table completely unconscious, thanks to a dose of morphine. And there’s the increasingly ubiquitous presence of the press, who capture an argument between Elizabeth and Philip on tape, but agree to give her the newsreel. Today, that would never happen, but Queen Elizabeth’s life story still is happening, and, despite concerns in the news headlines about her health, the UK’s strong, determined female figurehead could conceivably keep ruling for many more years to come. Here’s hoping the same can be said of Netflix’s biopic. This is stirring, glorious stuff.
The Crown is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix