In the details that are available to everyone with a few simple keystrokes, I believe that the Netflix series The Crown is historically accurate. But the truth is, I don’t really care. I am of the school of thought that, once dramatized or reduced to narrative, all history is at least partially fiction. Certainly it’s as biased as the testimony of different witnesses to a crime or traffic accident. And, in its revelation of individual emotions, motivations, fears and dreams, this series chooses the intimacy of fiction over fact.
And I’m perfectly all right with this. The Crown, while based on real historical events, is great storytelling. The people who populate the series, while based on real historical people, are great characters. So, when I refer to Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, the Duke of Windsor, or Philip Mountbatten, I’m referring to the characters on the series, whom I know somewhat more intimately than I will ever know their real-life counterparts. I’m willing to bet that the fictionalized characters even behave more logically and realistically than the real ones, because fiction demands this.
This is the sort of television show a person like me is supposed to hate. I’ve never cared about the British royal family, and I still don’t. I’m not a Masterpiece Theater sort of guy, preferring entertainment that involves over-the-top special effects and pyrotechnics. Wuthering Heights bored me to tears; I can’t imagine a circumstance where I could be forced to read Pride and Prejudice. In a cognac and cigar world, I travel with the beer and Black & Mild set.
This is the best recommendation you could get. I watched all ten episodes with rapt attention, and I have a famously low attention span. If a lowbrow commoner such as I, someone who will never refer to soccer as football and thinks it’s a silly playground sport anyway, enjoys this series, then chances are you will, too, even if your tastes tend to caviar and champagne.
The question is, why do I like it?
It’s a great-looking series, but I’ve seen plenty of great-looking television that I still didn’t enjoy. I know little about cinematography, but this has an epic, grand feel to it. The camera moves constantly, keeping even static scenes from becoming boring. And everyone looks good. I don’t mean that all of the actors are handsome or pretty, although there’s plenty of that if you’re looking for it. I mean that no one looks like a 21st Century actor in costume. The illusion is seamless. I’m sure that there are special effects galore that I’m not even noticing, bringing mid-20th Century England to life. Unlike in one of my beloved superhero shows, that’s exactly what you want special effects to be like in a series such as this one. Subtle and unobtrusive.
As most things do for me, it comes down to story and character.
The story of season one of The Crown begins, more or less, with the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, and the re-election of Winston Churchill to Prime Minister. It continues, quickly, through the death of King George VI, Elizabeth’s coronation, various scandals and political maneuverings, culminating in Elizabeth Windsor having to fully assume her role as Queen over that of wife/mother/sister. No real spoilers here. There are no car chases or big explosions. Big Ben isn’t reduced to rubble. But there’s plenty of drama, writ both large and small. Every emotion is evoked.
Through the lens of my particular witness testimony, the season is about Love. That’s Love with the capital L fully intended.
Maybe that’s simplistic, but I’m a simple guy. It was love (or great sex, love’s close kin) that led King Edward to abdicate the monarchy so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. Without this singular action, Elizabeth would never have become queen. Elizabeth and Philip’s story is also one of love, at first for each other in what seems a true love match, and then when love has to take second position to duty. The entire Princess Margaret/Peter Townsend subplot is about love as well, a story which often becomes part of the main plot. And then there’s Winston Churchill. Well, his marriage seems stable throughout the season, but Churchill’s storyline is one of Love of Country and love of his own legacy. Love, in all of its myriad forms and effects.
Again, I’m not the type who goes out looking for love stories, but I don’t mind a good one when it hits me.
As with all good entertainment, it will be the characters who remain with me long after I begin to forget individual plotlines.
The central character of The Crown is, of course, Queen Elizabeth. Claire Foy will continue to be Elizabeth in the second season, I hear, but probably not after if the series continues. I understand why. Elizabeth lives to be much, much older and there are limitations to aging makeup effects. Still, I will hate to see Foy go. She is the main attraction of this show, able to communicate, in equal parts, a certain vulnerability and strength that seem central to the character of young Elizabeth. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that she is gorgeous, something I’m not sure the real Elizabeth could ever really claim. Okay, retract your claws. I’ve seen photos. She was pretty in real life as well. Not gorgeous; just pretty.
I also have to praise Matt Smith as Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. I’ve just begun to watch Doctor Who, but I’ve only got as far as David Tennant, who is of course great even when he isn’t terrorizing Jessica Jones as Kilgrave. Before this role as Philip, I wasn’t familiar with Matt Smith’s work. But, he’s great here. He lends a humanity to Philip that I’ve never even detected from the real man. I found myself sympathizing with Philip just as often as I was exasperated by his childish, petty behavior. In this way, Smith brings a multidimensionality to the role just as Foy does her own.
What can I say about John Lithgow as Winston Churchill? With disturbing regularity, we are praising actors from the UK for putting on flawless American accents and taking on roles in US productions. At least one time, we get to praise an American actor for portraying THE quintessential Brit. Certain characters from history demand to be larger-than-life, and Churchill is one of them. Lithgow chews the scenery, dominating every scene he is in, just as Churchill should. After watching this season, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.
Praising individual performances shouldn’t diminish the rest of the cast. Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Ben Miles as Peter Townsend. Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles. The acting is so good throughout that I could just list the entire cast. I will single out Jared Harris as George VI. True, he has to die early so that Elizabeth can be crowned, but he continues throughout the season in many flashbacks. I was a fan of Harris’s work in The Riches, Fringe and Mad Men before this, and long before I knew he was the son of Richard Harris. He is a consistently working actor whose work, both past and future, I know I will enjoy again, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
The first season of The Crown is only ten episodes long. This may not sound like a great recommendation after I’ve praised it so highly. But, in this case, I think the old adage about less being more holds true. Twice as many episodes would invite too many filler episodes or lazy storytelling. There is no filler here. Each episode is carefully crafted, tightly constructed and smartly edited. After watching the final episode, I would not, in all honestly, take away or add anything.
I’m looking forward to the next season. Hell, I may even watch Downton Abbey now.