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At some point in the next couple of years, HBO’s prodigiously popular Game of Thrones will end its run with, presumably, one of the beloved or reviled characters sitting atop the Iron Throne. Viewers will be encouraged to believe that the pursuit of power is more interesting than the reign.
But while it lacks for nudity and dragons and bloody upheavals, Netflix’s new series The Crown makes a solid argument for the exercise of power as the stuff of compelling drama in its own right. The first chapter of Peter Morgan’s chronicle of the rule of Queen Elizabeth II remains gripping across the entirety of the 10 episodes made available to critics, finding both emotional heft in Elizabeth’s youthful ascension and unexpected suspense in matters of courtly protocol and etiquette. Led by a complicated and star-making performance by Claire Foy and an ensemble primed to fill Emmy categories, The Crown is surely Netflix’s strongest push yet into the realm of prestige drama.
AIR DATE Nov 04, 2016
Morgan begins his story in 1947 with King George VI (Jared Harris) in power but coughing blood in the most ominous of ways. On the verge of a somewhat controversial marriage to the insufficiently stationed Philip (Matt Smith), Elizabeth (Foy) is barely considering the crown, but it isn’t long before she is thrust atop the tenuous monarchy.
The first season stretches only through 1955, on the brink of the Suez Crisis, and builds its drama on several fronts, cleverly balancing episodic spikes in action — the Great Smog of 1952, for example, is the backdrop for an hour sure to warrant award consideration for its cinematography — with numerous ongoing struggles including the waning health of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow); Philip’s feelings of marginalization; sister Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) rule-breaking love life; and the periodic intrusions of Prince Edward (Alex Jennings), who remains adored by the citizenry even if his abdication nearly crushed the House of Windsor.
It’s a story of overwhelming privilege and, in most cases, the least relatable of dilemmas, but Morgan’s great gift is in foregrounding the characters’ choices in ways that feel universal. You might not think you’d care about which lavish residence Elizabeth calls home or whether or not her children take their father’s name, but The Crown makes you understand the stakes for Philip and then possibly the stakes for England. [Yes, even for Americans whose interest in British royalty is close to nil.] Morgan’s empathy for these characters is masterful, even if it’s probably a wholly theoretical empathy for real people who hardly are in the business of confessing their innermost insecurities to the public.
These are characters who are symbols for many in Great Britain and abstractions for most in the U.S., and Morgan makes them prickly, complicated, frequently unlikable and always justifiable in their own heads, to the benefit of the actors, if not to hero worshippers.
Foy starts the series as an intentional cipher, unreadable and unknowable because the eyes of the world needed her to be merely a daughter, a princess and a wife. In those initial episodes, The Crown is dominated by Harris in a career-best performance that builds on and improves on Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning take on George VI from The King’s Speech.
When she becomes queen and maintains Elizabeth as her reginal name, Foy is able to split into two Elizabeths, constantly in conflict — the woman and the crown. She’s simultaneously a deer-in-headlights, educated mostly on the constitution and horses, and instinctual and ready to learn. Foy punctuates moments of fierceness with uncertainty and moments of doubt with cleverness and she parries wonderfully with her co-stars.
Just as the Elizabeth of the first season is never entirely the queen she will become, Smith’s Philip is also a man in flux. The revered Doctor Who star doesn’t shy from making Philip a man of sometimes slithery ambition and gnawing insecurity, traits which keep him from coming across as a know-it-all, since the scripts also depict him as forward-looking and populist in a way Elizabeth can’t allow herself to be. Kirby gets to shine by being emotional and feisty as a contrast to Foy’s need to go tentative and calculating.
The Crown‘s other towering performance comes from Lithgow, a splendidly counter-intuitive choice to play Churchill. Perhaps because his nationality and build are wrong and because he was an inescapable foot taller than Churchill, Lithgow goes for an emotional evocation of the legendary politician’s bluster and diminishing might. Great throughout, Lithgow locks down inevitable trophies with a late season episode in which he’s paired with Stephen Dillane as Graham Sutherland, a modernist painter tasked with Churchill’s 80th birthday portrait.
In a cast without weak links, I’d also single out Jennings as a snivelingly vindictive and also righteously indignant Edward, Eileen Atkins as the no-filter Queen Mary, Pip Torrens as no-nonsense royal secretary Tommy Lascelles and Victoria Hamilton, whose take on the Queen Mum will be revelatory to audiences who only know Elizabeth’s mother from her later years as a cherished geriatric icon. Jeremy Northam’s Anthony Eden is well-introduced and is primed for a second season in the spotlight.
It’s normally THR‘s other Feinberg’s job to do awards speculation, but The Crown is a reminder that “awards bait” isn’t always a negative. Sometimes awards bait is just a thing that that’s likely to lure award-givers. And The Crown will be awards bait. If Foy, Smith and Lithgow don’t win Golden Globes (with Kirby or Atkins as contenders in the supporting actress field), Netflix has dropped the ball. On the Emmy front, I found myself counting Harris’ appearances and I believe he appears in five episodes, knocking him out of the guest acting field, and Jennings also appears in four or five. The Crown should be a real awards player for performances and also in myriad technical categories.
Much has been made of the high budget for The Crown, which is evident in all facets of the production. Stephen Daldry and a team of subsequent directors situate the tremendous performances within layers of varied opulence. Martin Childs’ production design celebrates the differences between a palace and 10 Downing Street, between the wealthy and the absurdly wealthy, with Emmy winner Michele Clapton (Game of Thrones) contributing marvelous frocks, gowns and uniforms. The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams accentuates grandeur, but, like the direction and overall pacing, is never stuffy.
The Crown is costume drama done right because for all its scope, Morgan’s fascination has always been process and the clash between individuals and institutions. He’s a writer who favors brainy intimacy, and even a royal wedding and coronation are negotiations of power. That’s probably why it’s left to Foy and Smith and Kirby and Ben Miles as Captain Townsend to carry the aspects of fairy tale romance. Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth talking dirty isn’t something that worked for me at all, but Morgan keeps it to a “These are real people and of course they had sex” minimum.
With its literate affluence and clear-eyed treatment of the compromises and conditions of power, The Crown is positioned to appeal to fans of both Downton Abbey and House of Cards, and I was consistently impressed with how Morgan kept the story interesting even in episodes without big historical events. The coronation and Elizabeth’s 1953 world tour make for rich hours, but Morgan is as confident building an episode around Elizabeth studding a prize horse or the Queen Mum’s trip to Scotland. I found the first season of The Crown to be surprisingly bingeable, and knowing some of the historical events to come and having settled into the performances by Foy, Smith, Kirby and the rest, I’m eagerly anticipating season two.
Cast: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, John Lithgow, Vanessa Kirby, Victoria Hamilton, John Lithgow, Jared Harris, Jeremy Northam, Eileen Atkins, Alex Jennings
Creator: Peter Morgan
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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