Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ is a winning tale of royals and the weight of tradition
By Robert Lloyd and Television Critic
Nov 02, 2016 | 4:55 PM
On Friday, Netflix premieres what is being billed as the most expensive television series ever: "The Crown," an epic true-life drama of the British aristocracy.
I am insufficiently schooled in the subject to criticize it as history, but as television it's excellent – beautifully mounted, movingly played and only mildly melodramatic.
In the first of several planned 10-episode seasons, "The Crown" follows the still-reigning Elizabeth II ("Wolf Hall's" Claire Foy) from the eve of her 1947 wedding to Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith, late of "Doctor Who"), when she is yet a princess, to the eve of the Suez Crisis, by which time she has become very much a queen. It was written by Peter Morgan, who has made hay from the royals before: His 2006 film "The Queen" concerned the royal family's reaction to the death of Princess Diana; his 2013 play "The Audience" imagined meetings between Elizabeth and a number of her many successive prime ministers.
Like those works, "The Crown" is about people condemned by an accident of birth to embody abstract ideals. Hemmed in by protocol, saddled with duties that only look like power, they are victims of a tyranny of tradition that keeps them even from choosing their staff. Unlike "Downton Abbey," whose nods to modernity always felt a little grudging, this is not an elegy, an exercise in nostalgia; Morgan looks a little askance at the forms and the institutions and with more than a little sympathy at the titled mortals who follow them.
"The crown must win," Elizabeth's grandmother (Eileen Atkins) tells her. "The crown must always win."
At its center, "The Crown" is the story of young people in love and a marriage under stress. In one early scene, Elizabeth, on an African veranda, wears nothing but her husband's shirt while he wears nothing at all. (This is as indecorous as the series gets; but if you have ever wanted to see Matt Smith's behind, come on in.)
Later, with Elizabeth a working woman and Philip an increasingly frustrated househusband – a House of Windsor husband, in fact, whose children were forced to relinquish his name – there is friction, discord and dark looks where there were once conspiratorial smiles.
The royal couple is not the sole focus. This is a big family drama, and some of its best passages have nothing to do with Elizabeth, as when the queen mother (Victoria Hamilton) explores the purchase of a remote seaside castle, or when her father, the not-yet-late King George VI (Jared Harris) and troubled, troublesome sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) sing a duet of Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."
And beyond the family are the politicians, most notably Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, relatively restrained), reminding the world that he beat Hitler and convinced that he's the man the queen and country need to guide them though he is nearing 80 and in less than peak condition.
There are set pieces throughout -- a wedding, a coronation, a trip to Africa with elephants and giraffes and hippopotamuses, a ride in a biplane -- but most of "The Crown" unfurls in intimate conversations, usually between two people, one of whom is trying to roll a ball forward while the other is trying to keep it back. "The Crown" is set in the birth of a new world whose freedoms its royal subjects are held back from enjoying, though not from recognizing.
Dominated by women, it's as feminist as history will allow. "Generally we're better at queens than kings in this country," says Elizabeth's embittered, essentially exiled uncle the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), whose abdication put her in the line of succession, like a deer chased into a hunter's sights. And over a point of royal order, Elizabeth tells Philip, "A strong man would be able to kneel to his wife." Philip, however, will take persuading.
As a docudrama, it necessarily spends a good deal of time folding historical facts and figures into the dialogue. This is smoothly managed, though there are also lines that announce the research, as when the Duke of Windsor speaks of his pugs (Davy Crockett, Trooper and Disraeli were their names) or when we learn that Anthony Eden wore a size 9 1/2 boot, though his riding boots were a 10 and his trench boots an 11, "make of that what you will."
And then there is the more crucial business of explaining to the foreign audience, and oblivious Britons, intricacies of the monarchy that steer the plot. As this is conveniently the story of the young queen's own education, such exposition fits right in.
As a production, it is very much a romance – sumptuous with palaces and castles and couture yet oddly modest in a postwar-appropriate way. The plotting can be obvious at times -- drawing a thick line under major themes and motifs, turning up the strings to communicate majesty, cherry-picking conflict to make big drama out of real lives that were extraordinary by many measures but also inevitably routine. Yet it is always very, very watchable and never less than smart, underestimating neither its subjects nor its viewers.