In the 2006 film The Queen, Elizabeth II, played by an excellent Helen Mirren, faces the aftermath of the 1997 death of Princess Diana. As details of the tragic Paris accident trickle in, Buckingham Palace turns into a fortress, the royal going behind her mask to hide her true feelings – a mix of embarrassment, relief and grief – and to carry on the business of ceremonially leading the state.
Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay of The Queen, returns as creator of the new Netflix series The Crown, an opulent drama whose scope is far larger than his earlier work. Over six seasons, the show is expected to cover the entire reign of Elizabeth II – a quicksilver period that saw Britain’s global influence diminish after the Second World War. Simultaneously, the monarchy too lost the sway it held over British society, as a nation looking to emerge from the shadows of colonialism found this undemocratic institution unpalatable.
Yet, The Crown is concerned less with the external forces churning British royalty than with the shadowy actions of the dramatis personae, chief among them Elizabeth herself, played to understated perfection by Claire Foy. The actress, who has appeared in a few British dramas before this, is not a well-known face, an asset in a role that sees her transform from naïveté to steel. Her soft voice and expressive eyes throw the keenest courtiers – as well as the viewer – off the perplexing royal trail.
Elizabeth ascended to the throne following the death of her father, George VI (played by Jared Harris in the series). The first episode brings up the king’s declining health – he routinely coughs blood but cannot quit smoking, not even after a blackened lung is removed. Harris, like Foy, plays someone whose idiosyncrasies were captured in a recent film: 2010’s The King’s Speech focused on George’s stammering and how the king overcame that impediment.
Harris’s King, a devoted father, dutiful son and beloved monarch, is older and more certain of himself than Colin Firth was in the film. The languid pace of the series permits the viewer to glean his inner life – a man who gradually but comprehensively grew into his role after his brother (Alex Jennings as Edward VIII) abdicated the throne for love. Keeping the news of his impending death from his family, he secretly readies his daughter for the crown by sending her off on a visit to Commonwealth states, a trip during which she will learn of his death.
The future queen is married to Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith), an alliance that, in spite of its private delights, will be tested for its unequal status. Mountbatten is a decorated naval officer of German ancestry, and by episode 3, Elizabeth is already staring down conflicts emerging from her dual roles. Philip places two demands before her: Clarence Hall, which has been lavishly spruced up by him, remains their family home and the queen takes his surname as the royal title.
Enter Winston Churchill. Played by the magnificent John Lithgow, Churchill becomes a surrogate father to the queen as he advises her on protocol and matters of the state. Elizabeth herself is no shrinking violet. The two are canny players who extract their pound of flesh in return for favours granted. The queen finally shifts to Buckingham Palace, which continues to be the House of Windsor, prompting her husband to say: “What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family? You have taken my career from me; you have taken my home; you have taken my name. I thought we were in this together.”
The one-hour duration of the episodes gives the creators – Stephen Daldry of Billy Eliot and The Hours directed the first two episodes – enough room to draw out the storyline, which is decidedly non-violent in these days of Game of Thrones. Yet, deep tensions lacerate the narrative as urgent matters of nation-building ricochet against filial jealousy, rising ambition and other passions of the human heart.