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December 7, 2016

‘The Crown’ is a slightly flawed gem

Claire Foy plays Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix's series, "The Crown," premiering Friday. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

Claire Foy plays Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s series, “The Crown,” premiering Friday. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

Underneath all the lustrous jewels and lavish tapestries adorning Buckingham Palace, “The Crown” is an exquisite yet heavily flawed period drama bolstered by its phenomenal actors and production design. The Netflix original series follows the reign of the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II torn between her duty as queen and her love as wife, daughter and sister.

“The Crown” opens on the grim scene of an ailing King George VI (Jared Harris) coughing up blood into a toilet at Buckingham Palace. Years of stress and chain smoking have led to the formation of malignancies inside of his lungs, consequences of wearing the crown for about 16 years. Peter Morgan, series creator and lead writer, makes clear the heavy burden of ruling the monarchy and demonstrates a somber passing of the torch with the passing of King George and coronation of his daughter, Elizabeth (Claire Foy).

Struggling to navigate the political waters as Queen, Elizabeth must also must also deal with issues that jeopardize the Royal Family’s public appearance such as her sister’s relationship with a divorced man (Ben Miles) and the former King Edwards VIII (Alex Jennings). Surprisingly, there is a large portion of time spent away from the life of the young monarch and devoted to lessor characters.

Much of her dealings with policy manifest themselves in weekly meetings with Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), in which the aging prime minister informs her on issues facing a wilting empire. Due to her father’s unexpected passing, Elizabeth is relatively inexperienced in her position and relies heavily on the council of Churchill, and her mother (Victoria Hamilton).

“The Crown” is marred by the inability to fully delve into Elizabeth’s feelings about being dictated to by men. There is a failure in the writing to confront the issue of misogyny and sexism; rather, Elizabeth is presented as accepting the wishes of these men, rarely objecting to any demands. Understandably, Morgan illustrates the misogyny of this time. However, it is paramount to understand the difference between a series depicting misogyny and one that embraces it.

At times, it feels like a tug of war between the male characters to see if Elizabeth would consider their way of thinking. Moments in which she demonstrates her own autonomy and decisiveness are rare and, when they do occur, it is commonly acts in the interest of her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith). Smith handles his often outwardly malevolent character with finesse, skillfully showing the struggle of loving his wife or kneeling to his queen.

Instead of fleshing out how Elizabeth feels about her husband’s increasingly erratic actions, Morgan is content with allowing her to stand idle and submit to his requests.

“The Crown” also seemingly misses the mark in holding the monarchy accountable for continued imperialism and racism. The Royal Family often refers to the people of third world nations as “savage” and “uncivilized.” Again, the problem here is not the fact that it was included in the show, the issue is that the writing does little to hold the characters accountable, and even seems to approve of the behavior.

Lithgow delivers an extraordinary performance as Winston Churchill and Claire Foy is outstanding as Elizabeth, maintaining an excellent ability to communicate through her eyes and making up for many of the weaknesses of the writing. Though she seems to be missing a chance to demonstrate the true strength of her character, Foy expresses the struggle of the young Queen with poise and depth.

The cast also includes a talented Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and Victoria Hamilton delivers a solid performance as the Queen Mother. Both actresses have moments in which they absolutely shine, often opposite Foy in powerful scenes.

The score by composer Rupert Gregson-Williams and the pricey production design lend magnificently to the immersion within the time period. Reportedly one of the most expensive television series of all time, “The Crown” goes all out – and the payoff is huge. While watching the series, it is easy to become lost in the extravagant sets and beautiful shots of England.

Though the series is directed by four different filmmakers, the styles never seem to clash and complement one another well. The muted color palette chosen and approach by cinematographers Adriano Goldman and Ole Bratt Birkeland lends to the generally grim mood as set up by the death of King George.

As Elizabeth becomes more entangled in politics, she is left feeling alone as those around her begin to resent her as Queen. Life becomes more strenuous and depressed under the weight of the crown, but Foy and Morgan mostly manage to elegantly bear the burden.

Daniel Monahan can be reached at dmonahan@umass.edu.

Comments
5 Responses to “‘The Crown’ is a slightly flawed gem”
  1. Dan says:

    The history of Britain is a complex story of the establishment of a democracy in harmony with, and in control of, a monarchy. In order to do this the people had to fight a civil war. There is a lot of good material out there dealing with this fascinating story. You should try reading some of it. Elizabeth wasn’t “dictated to” by men because she is a woman. She was dictated to because she is queen. I’m wondering, too, how you would have the writers of historical drama hold the characters accountable? By making the “bad” people suffer? Or perhaps having a lecturer walk out onto the set and explain to the audience that “this is wrong, mmmkay?” Really, how do you describe an empire without mentioning imperialism? Finally, your headline says “slightly flawed” and below that you say “heavily flawed.” Plenty of flaws to go around, I’d say.

  2. Kevin says:

    So, we can’t enjoy a beautifully portrayed television series today without focusing on identity politics? Sad.

  3. Rita Lynn McKenzie says:

    The writing makes the Duke of Edinburgh seem to be badly treated by the Crown. He comes off as a hero, when in fact, the history of his association with the Nazi’s was intolerable. Hitler was grooming him to be the puppet King of England once the war was won by the Nazi’s.

  4. A says:

    What, do you want them to get on a soapbox? As a woman, I felt that Elizabeth as a character, tugged around by the demands of the men around her, felt like a pretty realistic portrayal, capturing how hard it is to be the woman in charge in a world dominated by men, especially sixty years ago. I’m not sure what more you want… unless you as a man feel unable to identify with a woman unless she directly voices her feelings. I for one could well understand how she felt about her husband’s erratic decisions through all the things she DIDN’T say, thanks to Foy’s magnificent performance. It didn’t need to send its message any stronger, in my opinion. And certain moments of racism were deeply uncomfortable, such as the Duke of Edinburgh asking the African man where he “stole” his medals. I think it would be very hard to write a series that openly condemns that without getting very preachy and finger-waggy. As it is, it does not feel like the show “approves” of such behavior. If anything, letting such comments be uttered without cleaning them up feels realistic and shows a determination not to sanitize history.

  5. Pauline Cohen says:

    This review imposes a 2016 sensibility on events of the 1950s. The misogyny was part of the period, and it would have been artificial to have the Queen react to it. Women of her time accepted their role and expected to defer to men. This was before the feminist revolution. As the program shows, Queen Elisabeth gradually found her way and was able to assert herself as she became more comfortable and confident as the monarch.. The writer of this review has absolutely no understanding of what it was like to be a woman during that time.and the surrounding culture.

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