Netflix has a new, fact-based series called The Crown. It’s about the British royals in the mid-20th Century, including their complicated family relationships as well as their interaction with the most influential leaders of British government.
Peter Morgan is the creator, writer, and producer. If any creative talent working in the entertainment field today knows how to present dramas about Queen Elizabeth and her family, it is Morgan. He is the person who wrote the play The Audience, which is available in the National Theatre Live (NT Live) series, and the respected feature film, The Queen – both starring Helen Mirren.
But, so far, Mirren is nowhere to be seen in The Crown, because Season 1 focuses solely on Queen Elizabeth as a young woman. We see Her Royal Highness mainly as an untried monarch who is struggling with the impact that the new, elevated position has had on her marriage and family life. She is a serious-minded woman who takes her responsibilities to heart as she establishes new rules for dealing with husband Philip, who was not named King—and who was not even named Prince in the beginning-- but merely the consort to the Queen.
Suddenly, her mother, who would come to be known as The Queen Mother, and vivacious younger sister Margaret, must respect Elizabeth as head of the family, as would the Duke of Windsor who still is making waves fifteen years after his abdication. Furthermore, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, must learn to accept her as the reigning monarch of the British Empire.
Season 1 stretches across ten hour-long programs. According to publicity, it is Netflix’s most expensive programming to date. Seeing it makes this easy to believe.
The acting is outstanding, with Claire Foy and former Dr. Who, Matt Smith, as Elizabeth and Philip. The most unlikely casting comes with Anglo-American John Lithgow playing the elderly Churchill. And he is amazingly effective in this role! In fact, one of the most touching scenes in the whole ten hours comes with a conversation between Churchill and artist Graham Sutherland, as Sutherland works on Churchill’s likeness, and the two men quietly discuss the deaths of their small children. One memorable sequence covers the Great Smog of London in December, 1952, which caused the deaths of thousands.
There is much turmoil in the House of Windsor as the young Queen decides whether to bend to her family’s desires, or make rulings that make them miserable but protect the traditions of the Empire. Still, The Crown is a fairly dispassionate drama. There are very few fiery outbursts, and the few that occur are quick to come and go. The script holds a healthy mix of world events, palace and government plots, and intimate scenes. There is a perceptive view of the changes in how closely the mass media captured events and intruded upon individuals by the 1950s.
One negative to the series is the underlying feeling of “poor little rich girl” that pervades all ten hours. For heaven’s sake, other British women were struggling with post-World War II circumstances as well. Many were young widows. The war took their husbands; black lung disease took their husbands. Many had no means of feeding their families nutritious foods. Many shivered in winter in inadequate clothing.
Is Queen Elizabeth so burdened that we must pity her the monarchy of the British Empire? You know those Mary Engelbreit decorative mugs that state, “It’s good to be Queen.” Well, I’m not ready to dispose of my mug just yet!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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