The Crown review: her majesty, the media star

In a regally absorbing new series queen Elizabeth II prepares to spend the rest of her life on television

Matt Smith as  Philip and Claire Foy as  Elizabeth in The Crown

Matt Smith as Philip and Claire Foy as Elizabeth in The Crown

 

Early in the regal new series of The Crown (Netflix, from Friday), Peter Morgan’s riveting chronicle of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a young Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith) tosses a coin to decide whether he or his private secretary will drive home from another boozy lunch. He choses heads, but the coin comes down tails. “Your wife!” quips his pal, Mike Parker.

It’s a typically neat moment, a plausible and poetic invention, in which even a game of chance grants the queen final say. Philip, in Smith’s enjoyably irascible performance, continues to chafe within his marriage to a symbol.

Morgan, the show’s sole writer, sets the second series between 1957 and 1964, when the royal couple’s marriage was under conspicuous strain, and society was undergoing radical upheaval. Like the coin, there are two sides to Elizabeth (a divinely poised Claire Foy), through whom the drama traces a complicated division between a public and private life.

Even she seems to have a split sense of herself: when princess Margaret (the luminescent Vanessa Kirby), adrift since the breakdown of her relationship with a divorced man, tells her sister that she has denied her perfect match, Elizabeth responds primly, “It was the crown that forbade it.” How’s that for a defence? My metonym made me do it.

The strength of the series is that it restores some personhood to the monarch with the same subtle intrusiveness the Windsors are always resisting. Morgan, and this season’s lead director, Philip Martin, have a fondness for briskly establishing political and private parallels, layering the storms of the royal marriage, chilly and distant, over the Suez Canal crisis, in 1957, say. But it’s not for nothing that Morgan is so preoccupied with what can be revealed through creative portraiture.

“No one wants complexity and reality from us,” counsels the queen mother when Margaret bristles against her carefully construed Buckingham image. The sly joke of the show, though, is that this is what The Crown offers.

Just as a standout episode from its lavish first series told the story of an intimate – and loathed – portrait of Churchill, so the best episodes of another strong series concentrate on new ways of seeing the royal family. Margaret’s famously risqué photograph, by the man she would later marry, leads one fascinating chapter, while another extended episode marvels at the upstart peer with the temerity to criticise the queen’s supercilious and halting public image.

That, however, convincingly helped to shape her future approachability, and, in many ways, led towards the eventual making of a series as absorbing and revealing as The Crown. (You can imagine her beginning to watch it, unamused, in series nine.) “I don’t wish to be known,” protests Elizabeth when asked, among other things, to allow BBC cameras into her home for her Christmas message.

But to see her walk into a blaze of lights, looking stunned, and nervous, and gorgeous, is to see a figurehead and a woman getting used to spending the rest of her life on television. 

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