The Crown (Netflix Original Series)
History writing, from ancient times, has been the search for good stories: inspiring, instructive, diverting. True, kings kept chronicles, but they were seldom read (consider Ahasuerus’ use of his chronicles as a cure for insomnia) and never published. In a world awash with fiction, it is instructive when major entertainment producers return to history for a good story. Netflix’s choice of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign for their lavish production, The Crown (released November 2016), is a happy one, for it directs its viewers to some of contemporary Western civilization’s most urgent issues, even mining history for instructive insight. The central character is the young Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), the monarch who has guided her people through the painful process of reinventing themselves; in her reign, an empire became a country.
Early 1950’s Britain seems an unlikely setting for great historical and human drama. It was a brown time in a brown land. And a young woman of twenty-five, in a period when royalty was becoming an expensive anachronism, led the people among whom she never walked as an equal. She led them in the old style of parenting—the kind that looked toward long term goals, before parents became addicted to their children’s constant adulation and approval.
She stands as modernity’s most successful anti-celebrity. Her studied non-flamboyance, her willingness to be thought frumpy, dull and unglamorous, elevated her to a stature unequaled. What provided the foundation of her iconic success? She was twice-reluctant to rule: she was the daughter of a reluctant king; she ascended her throne in the wake of that beloved father’s death at an early age. As a child, she saw the crown thrust upon her father (Jared Harris) in the wake of Edward, Duke of Windsor, her dashing uncle’s (Alex Jennings) abdication—for the sake of love, the movie kind. Edward was King Edward VIII just long enough to make an appearance on the Empire’s stamps but not long enough to have a coronation. The Queen’s father, King George VI, a warm, shy man with a bad stutter, was ambushed by the crown, but he soldiered on under its weight from a deep sense of duty and led Britain through its darkest trials in World War II. His wife blamed her brother-in-law for his early death; his daughter, Elizabeth, took note of his example.
And then he died suddenly at 57. The newly married Elizabeth was in Kenya, gamely representing the Royal family to a collapsing Empire, and suddenly was Queen. In those early years, the ones covered in Season 1, she must plant herself in principled opposition against three of the most important figures in her world: her handsome, young husband (Matt Smith), her beloved sister (Vanessa Kirby), and the Prime Minister (John Lithgow) who had been, at her father’s side, a pillar of the nation in crisis. And it precisely because she serves, undistracted by fame for its own sake or by sentiment—insofar as it negates duty—that she is successful. She is a beacon in a civilization darkened by the glare of cameras. As an aging icon—the longest reigning monarch in Britain’s history—she remains an inspiration, a national treasure. As the young queen portrayed by The Crown, she is a wonder. Is The Crown accurate? Its most convincing footnote is that, according to Buckingham Palace sources, the Queen has never watched it.
But there are other stories for our time in The Crown. The Duke of Windsor: who follows the Hollywood script, prioritizing love (and, apparently, sex), and lives in stoic denial of his lifelong doubts about his choice. Princess Margaret: who flirts with charisma and celebrity to exorcise her sibling jealousy and the existential hollowness of her own life. The scene when she panders for laughs with stand-up comedy is among the most tragic in recent memory. Prince Phillip: thrashing desperately to define masculinity in a prophetic, personal confrontation with the approaching world of empowered women. And finally, Sir Winston Churchill: a giant who cannot find a place for himself in the post-war world of puny Britain, who ignores the fog that shrouds his land, because he prefers to reprise the glory days of his war against the Nazis in the slow-motion slugging of the Cold War, and who, beyond everything, is afraid to grow old. His fulminations at the portrait which tells too much truth, on its own, deserves a place in the Pantheon of great film achievements.
The Crown is story-telling at its best, because it tells us so many stories of our own world, our own lives. Perhaps it is a Churchill portrait of a time starved for majesty because it has gorged on celebrity.