“That’s the thing about the monarchy. We paper over the cracks.”
There’s been a wealth of historical television programs in recent years, whether they’re good (“Band of Brothers”), bad (“Victoria”) or delightfully trashy (“Reign”). Thankfully, “The Crown” classes as being good, if not the best of what historical adaptations on television have to offer. This isn’t just due to Netflix’s eye watering budget (reported to be about $10 million per episode) but the show’s attention to detail and its ability to humanize all of its characters.
This has made “The Crown” one of my favorite TV shows, which I never thought would be the case for a show about the royal family. Peter Morgan’s creation won’t necessarily change your opinion on the institution of monarchy itself; rather it gives you a better understanding of how the system affects those in it, for better or worse.
It’s an incredibly ambitious move to change the entire cast of a show that audiences have grown so familiar with over the past two seasons. While it made perfect sense to recast in order to show the royal family in different stages of their lives, the execution could have very easily failed. After all, Claire Foy gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in her portrayal of Elizabeth. All she had to do was blink and you’d see a multitude of emotions flicker across her face. How do you find another actress that can achieve so much doing so little? Hire Olivia Colman.
A New Royal Duo
From season three’s first scene, audiences can breathe a sigh of relief that the show is still just as great. While it’s very sad to see Claire Foy and Matt Smith depart, as Olivia Colman remarks in her first scene, there’s been “a great many changes. Not much one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.” It’s a seamless transition, and Olivia Colman is fantastic in the role. She fits perfectly to where Claire Foy left off and sounds so much like her as well.
It’s easy to get settled in after the first episode as if nothing has changed. Credit must also be given to Tobias Menzies for his portrayal of Prince Philip, who plays a more comfortable Philip in a calmer stage of his marriage. While Philip can still be awful and say the wrong thing far too many times, the show highlights that this is not the same man from season one. Philip’s development is displayed in the fifth episode of the season, “Coup.” Elizabeth’s month-long trip with Porchey could have caused a rift in the marriage, as their friendship did in the season one episode “Assassins.” Instead, Elizabeth receives a brief questioning from Phillip, which he soon abandons in order to kiss her and forget the argument. Moments where Philip might have previously been bratty now show how settled he is in his marriage. Both Colman and Menzies play a contented Elizabeth and Philip, now at ease with each other but still sharing the warmth and occasional playfulness that marked Claire Foy and Matt Smith’s interpretation. The issues Elizabeth is facing this season no longer stem from her marriage, rather the rest of her family and the country. This leads to the other high-profile casting changes, with Helena Bonham Carter now playing Princess Margaret.
A New Princess
While I can notice the similarities between Olivia Colman and Claire Foy’s performance, Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t act or sound much like her predecessor, Vanessa Kirby. Yet this doesn’t matter because her performance is just as arresting. Everything about her performance is so quintessentially Margaret, from the way she smokes to how she rolls her eyes and bitterly complains about everything. The spirit of the character is still there, for better or worse. People may be surprised at how little Margaret features in the overall season, but it’s hard for the show to juggle so many characters, particularly with the younger generation now taking center stage. When Margaret does get screen time (mostly in episodes two and ten), Peter Morgan makes it count. The only underwhelming feature of her storyline is her husband, Lord Snowdon, now played by Ben Daniels. It’s a fine performance, and while Daniels particularly shines in highlighting the malice in Snowdon’s treatment of Margaret, and his sadistic enjoyment in torturing her self-worth, he lacks the magnetic charisma of Matthew Goode. I feel Matthew Goode really made Snowdon seem irresistible to Margaret, yet still showed how toxic he was at the same time, which slightly lacks in Daniels’s performance.
The final episode of the season depicts Bonham-Carter at her best, and you see how her marriage has made her so miserable, and how meeting Roddy Llewellyn makes Margaret happy for the first time. The tearful conversation between Margaret and Elizabeth is a series highlight; the two sisters are so typically at odds that seeing a genuine affirmation of their affection for one another is beautiful to watch.
One thing that Peter Morgan does so skilfully is depicting the relationship between Elizabeth and her prime ministers. It’s Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) that dominates the role this season, in a close relationship that is accurate to the friendship that was formed between Elizabeth and Wilson in real life. Jason Watkins is superb as the Labour prime minister, and the relationship between the two is portrayed as one of equals, with Wilson being closer in age to Elizabeth than her previous prime ministers. I appreciate that Peter Morgan takes time to flesh out Elizabeth’s prime ministers, giving us glimpses of the political situations they’re facing and the personal issues they have to deal with. Not only does this establish the ever-changing political nature of the country, but it also means that the audience becomes invested in the prime minister as a character, not just as a mouthpiece to tell Elizabeth (and us) what political events we need to know about.
Season Highlight: Episode 3, “Aberfan”
Having to explore a tragedy such as Aberfan and be incredibly respectful of the event while also linking it to Elizabeth’s character and the royal family, is not an easy task. Yet it’s an episode the show pulls off successfully, in an emotional highpoint that easily surpasses the season’s previous two episodes (which are good, but not brilliant). It’s a tragedy that is little talked about now, and I was amazed that I hadn’t known of it before I heard the show was covering it. A colliery spoil tip flooded into Aberfan, killing 28 adults and 116 children. It’s a devastating moment in history, the horrors of which the show doesn’t shy away from. The show rightly spends a lot of time in Wales, showing the families and schoolchildren in their day-to-day lives before the disaster. The impact of the tip then flooding into the village is brutal to watch, and the desperation and grief of the community desperately digging to get to their children is heartbreaking. The most upsetting scene is the silence that occurs during the rescue operation in the hope that there’s a survivor in the rubble.
While Snowdown races up to Aberfan (true), Elizabeth feels visiting would distract from the rescue effort. While Elizabeth is not wrong to be concerned about this, she misreads the public mood and the symbolic importance her presence can have in these events. The show then uses this tragedy to explore Elizabeth’s inability to cry. When Harold Wilson tells Elizabeth to “comfort people” in Aberfan, she can only think that means “putting on a show.” There’s a brief flicker of confusion in Harold Wilson’s eyes before he responds, “I didn’t say put on a show. I said comfort people.” It’s clear that Elizabeth has no idea how to comfort and emotionally connect with the public in the wake of such a tragedy, but as the show points out, that doesn’t matter. There’s been a terrible loss of life, and her presence is needed. While Elizabeth can only muster a fake tear when in Aberfan, later on while she’s listening to a recording of the choir performing a hymn at the funeral, a single tear falls down Olivia Colman’s cheek. It’s a standout moment of the season, and one that demonstrates Colman’s range.
Next in Line
“Am I listened to in this family? Am I seen for who and what I am?”
The real successes of the show’s casting change are not just Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, but also Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty as Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Erin Doherty is a complete scene-stealer; all she has to do is say “yes,” “oh,” “hmm,” in her first scene and I was sold. Princess Anne hasn’t been a dominant feature of the royal family compared to others, and I didn’t really know anything about her. Yet Doherty brings Anne to life, particularly in her relationship with Charles. The warmth and teasing in Anne and Charles’s scenes showcase a family relationship that hasn’t been damaged by protocol and duty. Their small scenes shared together make me hope their sibling relationship will be explored further in upcoming seasons. O’Connor is relatively familiar to UK audiences, and there’s no doubt that his career will only go from strength to strength now after his star-making performance. This is displayed in my favorite episode of the season, “Tywysog Cymru.”
Season Highlight: Episode 6, “Tywysog Cymru”
On the surface it seems like an odd choice to wait until the sixth episode of the season to reintroduce Prince Charles to the audience. Yet rather than quickly reintroducing Charles in a few scenes in a previous episode, “The Crown” makes certain that the character’s first appearance will be an important and memorable one. I loved this episode and felt that it was the strongest this season in terms of storytelling and character development because the episode achieves the surprising feat of making the audience feel sorry for Prince Charles.
The suggestion that the Prince of Wales should actually spend time in Wales and speak Welsh is a good one, particularly in time for the Prince’s investiture. Yet this doesn’t consider Charles himself, who finally feels confident at Cambridge. Regardless, he’s whisked away to Aberystwyth for three months, where the majority of the students and population aren’t happy to see him. This includes Charles’s language tutor, Edward Millward, a Welsh nationalist and a republican.
It’s the focus on this relationship that really makes the episode shine, which displays the strength in “The Crown’s” writing. We immediately get a sense of who Edward Millward is, from his politics to his family life. The details in his first scene with Charles help establish how different this relationship is to the others in Charles’s life, from Millward shaking Charles’s hand rather than bowing, to Charles having to take a pile of books off a chair to move it to Millward’s desk.
The direction of the episode allows sympathy to build for Charles by demonstrating his isolation in Wales. The wide shots help establish how friendless Charles is, and even a phone call to his sister contrasts the warm comforts of Anne’s room compared to the gloomy payphone Charles calls from. Yet crucially, the episode doesn’t just let Charles complain about his circumstances, it also calls him out on the responsibilities and history attached to his role. After not even knowing who the first Prince of Wales is, Millward rightly reprimands Charles and implores him to actually understand the Welsh people’s plight and their historical concerns with how the English have treated them. After educating himself, Charles understands the feelings of the Welsh all too well, with the episode connecting the English oppression of Welsh identity to the royal family’s suppression of Charles’s.
After Millward invites Charles over to dinner, the episode’s best scene features Charles observing Millward and his wife putting their son to bed, in an affectionate domestic ritual that is clearly alien to him. In the small moment, you understand so much about Charles and who he is, and how the crown has seemingly made such intimate family moments impossible. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Charles in that moment, with even Millward and Silvia feeling sympathy for him. By the end of the episode, Millward not only feels sorry for Charles, but also likes him. Yet who these characters are fundamentally hasn’t changed; Charles is still Prince of Wales and Millward is still a Welsh nationalist and a republican. Charles isn’t going to renounce his role; Millward isn’t going to become a supporter of the royal family. Yet despite their differences, the two men understand one another and respect each other’s positions.
After slipping sympathetic messages to the Welsh people in his investiture speech (which goes down successfully), Charles returns home, expecting some acknowledgement and congratulations for what he’s achieved. After the inviting welcome he received in Millward and Silvia’s home, Buckingham Palace feels stark and cold on Charles’s return. It’s only after asking a servant that Charles can go and greet his mother, who is not pleased at the changes Charles made to his speech. It’s a brutal, perfect scene that shows the distance in Elizabeth’s relationship with her son. It also features the best parallel to season one. Just as Queen Mary told Elizabeth way back in “Act of God,” “To do nothing is the hardest job of all.” The lines that Mary told Elizabeth that “The less you do, the less you say, or agree, or smile,” are replicated with Charles responding just as Elizabeth did, complaining that this means they can’t “think, or feel, or breathe or exist.” Charles is struggling just as Elizabeth did. Yet the differences in these parallels are crucial. There’s an empathy to Queen Mary’s advice, yet when Elizabeth repeats the same words to Charles, there’s no warmth, no understanding. It could have been the perfect moment for Elizabeth to relate to Charles as a young man struggling with his role as she herself once did, yet instead Elizabeth just coldly reprimands him. Elizabeth acts solely as sovereign, chastising the Prince of Wales, rather than a mother communicating and comforting her son. Instead, after Charles’s insistence that he “has a voice,” Elizabeth can only sharply respond that “no one wants to hear it.” Not the British public, not the crown, not his mother.
And so, the episode ends with Charles performing a scene from Shakespeare’s “Richard II” back at Cambridge. It’s a perfect example of how a small invention can elevate historical storytelling to such heights. It doesn’t matter that Charles didn’t ever play Richard II; what matters is the purpose this invention gives to the episode. It perfectly encapsulates the themes of the episode and benefits the understanding of Charles’s character. “The Crown” uses historically accurate events (Millward’s tutoring of Charles) and then uses historical license to explore the emotions in these events, allowing powerful character moments to be created. On stage, Charles can say what he didn’t get to say to his mother. “You have mistook me all this while. I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus, how can you say to me I am a king?” That Josh O’ Connor makes such an impression in his first episode bodes incredibly well for season four.
Is everything about this season perfect? No. Peter Morgan still tends to tell the audience what the characters are thinking and feeling while also showing it, which means that a few speeches seem unnecessary. We don’t need Margaret to remind us that she doesn’t like playing second fiddle to Elizabeth, or that Elizabeth envies Margaret’s ability to dazzle everyone. We don’t need Charles outwardly comparing his plight to the Welsh people’s; we can already see it. The actors are so incredible on this show and they achieve what long speeches can do in a matter of seconds. Regardless of these nitpicks, “The Crown” remains an engaging and masterful drama, confident in its ability to tell an engaging narrative (mostly) rooted in history. With its attention to detail and thoughtful character studies, season three of “The Crown” is evidence that not even a new cast can diminish the show’s brilliance. I look forward to rewatching it numerous times in the wait for season four.
“The Crown” seasons one to three are available to stream on Netflix.
Featured image credit: Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix
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