As any TV viewer of a royal wedding can attest, they are not speedy events. Those ceremonies are often ponderous and deliberate, but the slow processions and dutiful observances of protocol offer plenty of opportunities to gawk at the pretty dresses and marvel at the details of the glorious venue. So it makes a certain sort of sense that the first season of “The Crown,” a lush and well-acted drama about the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, proceeds at a leisurely and occasionally sluggish pace. This expensive and obsessively detailed production puts the “stately” in stately homes.
“The Crown” does depict a kind of marriage, however, one between a sheltered young sovereign and the country she symbolically rules. That relationship comes to divide the young queen from the people around her even as it binds her even closer to the ill-defined and challenging duties that are thrust upon her at the tender age of 25, and every nuance of that process is depicted with clarity and phenomenal control by Claire Foy. In a drama that is prone to repetitive tangents, disconnected subplots and the liberal use of filler, Foy unites the disparate parts of “The Crown” and gives it a taut center. The depth and specificity of her characterization of the monarch proves that the actress’s terrific work in “Wolf Hall” — in which she played another woman who was forced to be a symbol as well as a human being — was no fluke.
By the end of the 10-episode first season, which follows Elizabeth around the time of the death of her father and during her first few years on the throne, a viewer might feel as though he or she has lived through that era in real time. The drama meanders on at such length that all subtext is eventually hauled out and made text, now and then in the form of lumbering, on-the-nose dialogue.
Still, for many, “The Crown” will be well-nigh irresistible. Certain confrontations and realizations are written with acute perception and touching restraint, and Matt Smith, Jared Harris, and Eileen Atkins, among others, do excellent work. Fans of beautifully appointed costume dramas looking for something to savor since “Downton Abbey” exited the television scene are this program’s target audience, and those viewers are likely to be deeply hooked.
Like the recently departed PBS series (which got a huge boost from having its early seasons available on the streaming platform), “The Crown” — or better yet, “Crownton Abbey” — is yet another story of a remarkably capable and stubborn daughter who holds her powerful family together through difficult social and cultural transitions. The Elizabeth Windsor of “The Crown” is a deeply conventional woman who would have happily, as she puts it, lived a normal life as an “ordinary English countrywoman.” But that was not to be her lot, and Foy depicts the internal tensions of the job with an admirable combination of wry good humor, deftness and probing seriousness. “The Crown” doesn’t get to Elizabeth’s coronation until midway through the season, and the intent, serious look on the young queen’s face sells the gravity and even the mysticism of the moment.
Buckingham Palace is familiar territory for creator Peter Morgan, who wrote every episode here, and also penned the film “The Queen” and the play “The Audience,” both of which speculate on the life and work of the reigning British monarch. The prodigious research he and his team did for the Netflix series is impressive, yet the drama’s attention to detail sometimes bogs it down. For instance, there are scenes that depict the transit of a letter from one place to another, and that show the number of switchboards a call had to go through before reaching the ruler’s inner sanctum.
The message that the Queen is not easy to reach is heard loud and clear, and yet “The Crown” displays that kind of sequence a number of times; we also see courtiers walking down very long gilded hallways again and again. “The Crown” does a credible job of establishing the scope and luxury of its characters’ environments, but its sprawl doesn’t stop there. On a story level as well as an aesthetic one, “The Crown” simply becomes repetitious in ways that will be mildly or moderately tiring, depending on one’s ability to be distracted by tiaras and corgis.
Part of the frustration for the royals — and probably for some viewers — is that there’s often little suspense about what will happen next. The shape of royal days and tours hasn’t changed much since the first Elizabeth ruled Britain, and in this day and age, the monarch’s influence is even more limited. Much is made of the red box full of government papers that the Queen reviews each day, but as she grows more aware of the agendas around her, she realizes just how little power she has. Queen Elizabeth II painstakingly learns to use moral persuasion, when she can, but nudging events through rare scoldings or pleading for small scraps of change is not exactly the stuff of high-stakes drama.
“The Crown” fills out its running time by attempting to be a dual narrative, one that follows the course of British politics in the 1950s as well as the early days of Elizabeth’s reign, but the forays into cabinet matters are only intermittently interesting. Perhaps that subset of stories will go over better in current and former Commonwealth territories, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in America being drawn in by the fortunes of the Mountbatten clan, Clement Attlee or Anthony Eden. In any event, much of the political drama is dominated by Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), who is forever standing over the young queen, explaining her duties and responsibilities to her.
His looming posture isn’t just a product of his tendency to lecture; in their weekly private audiences with the Queen, prime ministers are not allowed to sit down. As Churchill, Lithgow has a good bit of fun chewing the scenery, but not until the end of the first season does “The Crown” drill down beneath the politician’s many layers of bluster to find the fear, vulnerability and even despair at the core of his soul. Scenes between Lithgow and Stephen Dillane, who plays the aging prime minister’s portraitist, are low-key but spectacular.
Foy brings to “The Crown” the watchful intelligence that she displayed in “Wolf Hall”; it is a star turn of the highest order, but not remotely showy. It’s not exactly a news flash that the Windsors, like many of their upper-class compatriots, are not emotionally forthcoming or willing to engage in soul-searching. This is a drama that revolves largely around the silent but significant looks that repressed characters give each other, and Foy is a master of such subtleties. Though like most story threads, the tale of Princess Margaret’s heartbreak over her thwarted marriage tends to go in predictable circles, Foy and Vanessa Kirby have a series of tense and rewarding scenes that ably depict the impossible positions both women are put in.
Matt Smith brings a great deal of energy to his role as Prince Phillip, and there are times that “The Crown” edges close to being very slick P.R. for England’s ruling family. This version of the royal consort, you see, is not a gaffe-prone liability — he’s just a spirited man who understandably minds having to grin “like a demented ape” while the sovereign cuts ribbons. While remaining a tasteful costume drama, “The Crown” depicts the sexual chemistry between the royal couple, but every connection between them, including that bond, is tested by frequent travel and divergent temperaments.
As was the case with “Downton Abbey,” don’t come to “The Crown” looking for a critique of aristocratic privilege: The drama takes it as a given that all U.K. and Commonwealth citizens unfailingly love their nominal ruler; any notable opposition or resentment is alluded to only obliquely. (Speaking of the artist painting his portrait, Churchill snorts, “You can practically smell the socialism on him!”)
Yet the Windsor clan is very aware of public opinion, and its members are shown as willing to ruthlessly ostracize and even destroy those who cross it or dent the family’s glossy image. Having survived the abdication crisis of 1936 made senior royals rigid and inflexible in the face of Elizabeth and Philip’s desire for change, and the senior courtiers around the family are even more obsessed with protocol. And yet the family’s rank and privileges sometimes make it hard to root for any of these people, most of whom have a lot of time on their hands. One particularly padded subplot concerns whether a certain royal will be able to acquire yet another castle.
The best part of “The Crown” — aside from all the pretty palaces, shiny jewels and pomp-filled rituals — is the way it depicts the Queen slowly coming into her own and eventually beginning to embrace her destiny. In these early years, she is unsure of herself, she is repeatedly lied to and misled, and she laments her lack of education. But she is patient, persistent and willing to outwait and sometimes outwit the “gray men in suits” in her government and palaces. Those who view her as nothing more than an easily manipulated figurehead often come to regret their presumption, because well before she turns 30, this monarch proves she’s no pushover. Queen Elizabeth doesn’t do it often, but with a look, she can easily fill a grown man with shame.
Check out this feature on the making of “The Crown” by Variety’s Debra Birnbaum.
TV Review: 'The Crown'
Executive producers, Peter Morgan, Stephen Daldry, Philip Martin, Andy Harries, Suzanne Mackie, Tanya Seghatchian, Robert Fox, Matthew Byam Shaw