Royal Treatment

Watching The Crown on Netflix

Early on in the new Netflix series The Crown, which tracks the ascension and early monarchy of Queen Elizabeth II, the future queen’s father, King George VI (the show’s breakout star, Jared Harris), gives his daughter a movie camera as a wedding present. “If your marriage is as happy as mine has been,” he says, “I don’t want you to miss a single thing.” The 21-year-old princess, enamored, gets filming—but then comes the death of her father, five years later, at which point missing things becomes something of a necessity.

What makes The Crown fitting for today’s political climate is not the reign of Elizabeth as it unfolds, but rather the monarchy which Elizabeth’s attempts vainly to recall. With that camera, or with the soon-to-be-late King’s increasingly frequent hunting retreats, or with the archaic glamour of a royal wedding or a coronation, Claire Foy, as the Queen, is attempting to capture a moment—the moment just before ours, just before things started to become confusing. The moment when the royal family realizes they’re in the midst of a Golden Age just as it’s ending.  

Foy—with eyes like unfathomable glass and a nearly imperceptible quaver in her neck when she gets angry—both is the future and must bear the future, with all its indignities. Winston Churchill (wonderfully, John Lithgow) is a septuagenarian running a country he no longer recognizes and dealing with a monarchy with which he’s even less comfortable. Prince Philip, as portrayed by Matt Smith with the leonine charm of a man who could play the Devil or James Bond with equal flair, is dragged along by the skin of his teeth to kneel before his own wife and a monarchy he sees as outdated and irrelevant. The general feeling is—we’ve just missed something, and if we could only get back to it, we’d be right as rain. As an equally shaky denizen of Trump’s America, it’s hard not to feel the same.

Its political ramifications aside, it is near-impossible not to love The Crown, if only for the beauty and professionalism it brings to a world that has increasingly less of either.  It’s by a longshot the best-acted Netflix original series ever released, which is beside the fact that it’s pretty as all hell, ducking ably from Buckingham Palace to Kenya to the Bois de Bologne without missing a step—thanks in part to a visual style established by Stephen Daldry, the director of the first two episodes, a brilliant stage director but usually a workmanlike filmmaker who here finds his groove and then some.  

At its best, The Crown declares itself the magnum opus of Peter Morgan, who wrote all 10 episodes, as well as a Queen Elizabeth movie, The Queen, and a Queen Elizabeth play, The Audience, part of which covers similar ground to The Crown.  Naturally, Morgan is not exactly an impartial observer of the British monarchy—he’s unapologetically reverent, actually, sometimes to the point of being pedantic. (Sample dialogue: “Ma’am, what do you know about the Royal Marriages Act of 1772?”)  Each episode covers a breezy character study of a member of the upper echelons of power in London during the 1950s (I found myself looking forward to Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret, evidence of that actress’s ability since I’m not the least bit interested in the real princess).  

Like the royal family itself, The Crown is glamorous beyond belief but flirts with improbability–Though the episode in question is deeply moving, I have a hard time believing, for example, that King Edward VIII, who famously abdicated the throne for his American love, Wallis Simpson, was in fact an inveterate Anglophile who, after a while, would have preferred Scotland to his wife. But, it’s all relative, and the main thing is that it all comes back to Foy, who comes into her own with such vitality and inner strength over the course of the series that one’s tempted to set her up in our own monarchy on this side of the pond. There are certainly some who’d see it as an improvement, as our own singular dynastic moment comes crashing to a close.