“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
This quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV resounded in my mind all throughout my viewing of Netflix’s latest sweeping and gosh-dang expensive series, The Crown: a ten-episode biopic of the early years in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Opinions on monarchy aside, many of us have long held a fascination with the British Royal Family, be it historical interest, celebrity intrigue, or simply the magic and charm we like to relate to real-life princesses and princes. Even if your personal investments in the British Royal Family only lasted the length of William and Kate’s wedding, you’ve likely spent at least a moment thinking about two things often associated with royalty: the idealism of romance, and the burden of responsibility.
The focus in the first three episodes of The Crown are no different.
“She probably didn’t get to choose any of that,” my friend said during the televising of the 2011 Royal Wedding, referring to the wedding party’s attire, the people involved in the ceremony, and the location of Westminster Abbey. “Kate. Imagine being her as a teenager, dreaming of your wedding day … it’s magical and all, marrying a prince, I suppose. But just think about all she’s had to give up. Maybe she wanted to get married on the beach. Live in the suburbs. Dress her kids in goofy clothes.”
Similar, albeit more serious, notions permeate The Crown, which opens with the 1947 wedding of the young heir presumptive Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary to Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh; portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith respectively. The series sets itself up with a lovely home-movie montage of the quickly-growing family, as Elizabeth and Philip move into their home at Clarence House, travel to various countries on duty and have their first two children, Charles and Anne. However, this picturesque introduction to the Royal Family is overshadowed by the fast-declining health of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI (Jared Harris), and the sudden knowledge that Elizabeth’s life and sense of self as she is used to it will soon come to a grinding halt.
Despite the obvious importance of Elizabeth as a character, The Crown takes its time letting us get to know her. This isn’t a mistake on behalf of the writer’s, though, because the current status of the monarchy is the dramatic backdrop that will shape the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. The post-war state of Britain weighs heavy on the shoulders of George VI and Winston Churchill, and their roles in the story rightly overwhelm much of the initial screen time. “The Crown takes precedence,” is a statement once-spoken but always understood.
In any film or television series focusing on royalty, the casting is of utmost importance. We don’t watch these kinds of drama for meaty plot points and spectacular action scenes. In a period drama about royalty, it’s all about characters (and maybe a little bit about pretty costumes and beautiful interior decor). The casting of The Crown is a slightly present surprise.
Matt Smith is best known for his bold and bright rendition of Doctor Who, but manages to move away from familiar quirkiness into the mature and reserved Prince Philip quite effortlessly. John Lithgow is a fitting Winston Churchill and provides leverage for some of the show’s more subtle humour. Jared Harris brings an endearing sympathy to George VI that rivals Colin Firth’s interpretation, and despite his early on-screen death we feel the hollow significance of his passing well into the third episode and beyond.
This is mostly due to the overwhelming second and third-episode subplot that lets us in on just how much the extended Royal Family resents George VI’s brother David for abdicating the throne and forcing George upon it. Eileen Atkins delivers a cold and memorable performance as their mother Queen Mary, whose bitterness towards David is rivaled only by the Queen Mother, who directly blames David for the death of her husband. The burden of the throne is evidently heavy, indeed.
Behind these powerful male figures stands Claire Foy’s Elizabeth, and quiet though she may be her presence is nonetheless the cornerstone of the first three episodes. On the occasions where Elizabeth opens her mouth and addresses the individual or crowd before her, she is nothing short of captivating thanks to Foy’s sweet, steady voice and unchallengeable gaze. Although most of the plot so far surrounds the events leading up to and following George VI’s untimely death, the importance of it all rests with Elizabeth.
The series so far relies heavily on montage sequences coupled with voice overs by various characters reading letters or making speeches. It works for the most part due to the weight of these spoken words. Following George’s death the late Queen Mary writes to Elizabeth, explaining how she must prepare herself for what is coming. Her description of the way in which Elizabeth must shed her old self, Elizabeth Mountbatten, and become an entirely new person, Queen Elizabeth, is enough to give one chills. The two persons inside her now will fight, Queen Mary explains, “But the Crown must win. Must always win.”
Elizabeth and Philip were in Nairobi when the news of George VI’s death broke, and on the flight home Elizabeth apologies to her husband. “I thought we’d have more time,” she says, referring to the life they’d begun to build with their children at Clarence House. Despite Philip’s efforts to hang onto the familiarity of their family, Elizabeth stays true to what she is learning — that the Crown must win — and gives up Clarence House for Buckingham Palace, and her husband’s name for the more necessary and long withstanding Windsor.
This causes tension between the couple, but as most royalty dramas have taught us, the idealism of romance will eventually be shattered in favour of the responsibilities that must be taken up. This quietly tragic situation is what The Crown banks upon, and although the drama of the relationships occasionally borders on melodrama, it’s surely part of what audiences were here for to begin with.
Next week we’ll delve into the middle part of the series, and unravel these old relationships and new responsibilities even further. Perhaps by then we’ll have a stamp of approval from Queen Elizabeth II herself!