Peter Morgan’s The Crown returns to Netflix having more or less taken up the same place in our viewing habits as the real Elizabeth II has in the national psyche. There’s a lot of pomp and fuss – yet its most charming attribute may be its dependability. Come what may, every year or so a new season of Morgan’s chronicling of the life and times of the Queen will pop up in our streaming queue, brimming with state-of-the-art-production values and mahogany-solid acting. Whatever will we do when it’s gone?
One surprise with series four is that it is the least visually sumptuous to date. If it’s possible to make a thoughtful and internalised drama about the Monarchy during the 1980s – the era of big hair and even bigger scandals – Morgan has found a way. And that’s despite the arrival to the stage of arguably the only two characters with the potential to outshine HRH. These are, of course, Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana.
Opposite these icons, Olivia Colman, as the Queen, puts in a sensibly restrained performance. The Crown is ostensibly a long-form exploration of Elizabeth’s eight decades on the throne. Here, she serves largely as audience surrogate, as does Tobias Menzies’s excellent Prince Phillip.
Colman is perfectly content to sit back and take it all in. That is particularly true as Anderson’s Thatcher makes her entrance. She is a force of nature, as you would expect. And yet something initially feels slightly off about The X-Files star’s tilt at the era’s most divisive prime minister.
The uncanniness, it soon becomes clear, flows from the fact that Anderson has opted not to deliver a rigorously accurate imitation. Despite the helmet bouffant and the twin set and pearls, Anderson isn’t mimicking Thatcher. She has the former prime minister’s mannerisms down but isn’t prisoner to them. Anderson is giving us her slant on Thatcher rather than the standard impersonation familiar from Spitting Image and generations of political cartoons.
She’s hard-headed and implacable. However, she also dotes on her son Mark (Freddie Fox) and has a conspiratorially loving relationship with husband Denis (Stephen Boxer). Anderson has done something extraordinary in making an often vilified historical figure feel like a real human being. Corrin’s Diana is more low-key yet just as impressive. She is required to do two things at once in exuding a doe-eyed coltishness while providing flickers of the global superstar Diana will grow into.
Morgan verges on writing Diana as manipulative and celebrity-hungry but stops just shy. We see her receiving her first taste of fame as her relationship with Prince Charles is made public and discovering she enjoys the spotlight.
At the same time, she is easily overawed by Charles’s true love Camilla (Emerald Fennell), who haunts the marriage. And Morgan doesn’t hold back from Diana’s struggles with bulimia. Ultimately, The Crown leaves it to the viewer to decide whether she is a victim of the frosty and dysfunctional royal “Firm” or architect of her unhappiness.
So dazzling are these performances that the real historical events that serve as raw materials for The Crown often feel like an afterthought. The assassination of Charles Dance’s Lord Mountbatten by the Provisional IRA in the first episode, for instance, is framed as a setback for Charles (Josh O’Connor), now forced to navigate life and love without his surrogate father. As Charles grieves, the Troubles are reduced to footage of angry Irish people in the streets shouting and chucking bricks (which oddly echoes the portrayal of the conflict in the right-wing British media at the time).
A similar sniffiness characterises the depiction of Republican Australian prime minister Bob Hawke as an oik with a chip on his shoulder – and powerless in the face of Di’s dazzling charms as she and Charles pay a state visit. The Falklands war, for its part, starts with some shifty Argentinians daubing graffiti and singing badly in Spanish. It is slightly chilling to consider tens of millions of Netflix viewers around the world will accept such caricatures as genuine history.
The stillness at the centre of this storm is Colman. She is quietly riveting as the plot wends its way to a predictable conclusion. Thatcher is cast down by her cabinet. Diana threatens to leave Charles and strike out on her own (Helena Bonham Carter’s hollowed out Princess Margaret is, meanwhile, as adrift as ever and “young” Queen Claire Foy cameos in a flashback).
Series four marks the end of Colman’s tenure as TV regent. She takes her bows now and The Crown’s concluding two seasons will welcome Imelda Staunton as the older Queen, Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. Fans will look forward to what they bring to the roles. And yet Morgan’s blockbuster has been around so long now that it’s easy to take for granted, mega-budgets and all. Perhaps we’ll only truly miss it when it has run its course.
The Crown season four airs on Netflix on 15 November
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