Review: The Crown – Season 1

TV Editor Ben reviews Netflix's The Crown - a moving, intriguing and genius portrayal of the early days of Elizabeth II

Imagine for a second that it’s 1952. Great Britain is a country still very much recovering from the War. National teasure Winston Churchill is now elderly and frail, refusing to admit it’s time to step down as leader despite the pleas from his government. The future Queen Elizabeth is a young, recently married Princess touring the world with her husband Philip Mountbatten. Her father, King George VI, is gravely ill, preparing for the inevitable. A turbulent time of change that seems a million years from present day life, yet one that is perfectly and completely captured in Netflix’s The Crown. 

Written by Peter Morgan, also behind 2006’s Helen Mirren lead film The Queen, this new 10 part series follows the early years of present monarch Elizabeth II‘s reign, detailing  the political and personal issues she faced whilst assuming the Monarchy. With the intention of telling the story all the way through to the days of Princess Diana, over the span of six seasons, this intimate look into the private lives of the Royal family of Windsor is not only interesting and gripping – it’s also extremely touching. If all following seasons are as well written and intriguing as it’s first, this could end up being a very special series indeed.

Beginning in the final days of  George VI (Jared Harris), season one mostly focuses on his illness and death, Princess Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) ascension to the throne, Winston Churchill’s (John Lithgo) failing health, Prince Philip(Matt Smith) acceptance of his place in all of this and Princess Margaret‘s (Vanessa Kirby) utter bitterness of her’s. Mixing real events with dramatised conversations, all ten episodes firmly paint the belief that life in the Royal Family of Great Britain really isn’t the glamorous luxury it is painted to be. In many ways, it is a despairing portrait of responsibility, loneliness and despair.

The first thing that utterly stands out about this show is the level of acting it presents. Claire Foy is simply fantastic as Elizabeth, showcasing a young woman who has a responsibility thrust upon her she does not really feel ready for, notwithstanding the fact that she actually does a damn good job. Foy almost instantly faces the challenge of making us care for Elizabeth despite how cold and disconnected she feels she has to be to even those closest to her, and you never once feel the performance strained, or find the new Queen unlikable. The subtle looks of pain on Foy’s face as she has to continuously place her duty over the well-being of her loving family is extremely well done, as is her ability to face down powerful men many years her senior with a look and a word. This whole series, in fact, truly does paint a powerful picture of how Queen Elizabeth II was truly born to be what she is, even before she accepted it herself.

It is fortunate for Foy that she also has such a strong supporting cast to work with. Former Doctor Who star Matt Smith is superb as the ambitious and frustrated Prince Philip, showcasing a man who sacrifices a great deal to marry the future Monarch, and how he deals with his new status. The troubles that this relatively youthful couple face form the heart of the series and it is difficult not to feel for this brand new consort, as he comes to the realisation he will spend his life in the shadow of his wife. In fact, this bitterness is an emotion shared by other members of Elizabeth’s family, Vanessa Kirby giving a stand out performance as Princess Margaret and her pursuit of a man she cannot have. Even Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) has her moments of doubt, feeling like she is simply to be forgotten about now her husband has died. In quite a surprising twist, it is also interesting to get a bit of a backstory surrounding the details of Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), the disgraced former King who abdicated his position in 1936 and who shows up quite a few times causing issues for her.

However, the most heartbreaking scenes belong to both Jared Harris and John Lithgo, both of whom absolutely shine as George VI and Winston Churchill respectively. Whilst being the only member of the cast who looks strikingly different from his counterpart, Harris puts in a very emotional turn as the stuttering and terminally ill King, one who was never supposed to assume the Throne and now has to pass it on to his young and beloved daughter. One simply beautiful moment in particular stands out, as the extremely unwell King sings a beautiful rendition of In the Bleak Mid-Winter with a bunch of performers, tearfully gazing at the family he knows he will soon leave. It effortlessly conveys his heartbreak and fear all in one moment, and is just one of the many examples of stellar acting on show.

It is Lithgow, however, who takes the crown here, putting in what could well be the best portrayal of Churchill to date. This is a man who still believes himself the father of the United Kingdom, a man who is tired, fading and in desperate need of stepping down. Lithgow is just perfect in this series, playing Chuchill as though he was always supposed to play him. Churchill was definitely not a perfect man, but what we see here is a person utterly devoted to his duty, to the extent he’ll cover up serious dangers to his health in order to remain in charge. Queen Elizabethfirst Prime Minister may have been difficult, but in the moments they do spend together here, it is easy to see the influence he had on her.

Outside of The Crown‘s impressive cast, what really makes it work so well is the writing and thought behind it. Morgan has clearly devoted a huge amount of time to researching the early Royals, even if they famously have actually not been interviewed during the production of this show. The episodes never seem to drag on or lose momentum, and it is only really episode nine that doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of the rest, showing in a little too much detail the otherwise intriguing story of Churchill’s lost painting. Ultimately, what we see here is the tale of a young woman who goes from happily travelling the world with her loving husband to being very alone on her pedestal, having broken both his and her sister’s dreams in one fell swoop. It’s quite a bitter way to leave things, especially as the audience knows that her pain, and her long career as Queen, is only just beginning.

However, that is the bitter truth of responsibility, and how it has to take precedent over personal desires. If nothing else, what The Crown does is evaluate just how much a person may find themselves giving up in order to do what is expected of them in later life. It explores not only the themes of power, but also of prejudice, as we see Princess Margaret denied the chance to marry her lover Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) due to the old fashioned views of re-marrying extending from Parliament. The 1950s were a very different time, something felt no less keenly by those at the very top of society. Indeed, one is left feeling that Elizabeth is very justified in demanding an apology from her uncle Edward VIII, as it was his abdication that turned her life into the never endless path of duty it became.

There is clearly a deep level of confidence in what is being produced here, shown by the obvious amount of money that has been spent on it. The whole show looks gorgeous, from the lavish corridors of Buckingham Palace to the grotty and smog ridden streets of twentieth century London.  Throughout the entirety of the episodes, the audience can easily believe they truly are following Elizabeth down through Westminster Abbey towards the Throne, or spending time with her and Philip deep in Africa. In full HD glory, we take a trip back to the 50s, peering through to a very different time, in a scary and confusing world.

In all, The Crown is truly a spectacle, worth a serious binge watch on Netflix. From fantastic performances, superb visuals and an emotional, vastly interesting depiction of historical events, this truly is something special. Thus begins the countdown to season 2, but for now, all episodes are available to stream on Netflix.

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