So when I flew back to the UK for Christmas my family were all raving about Netflix’s new series The Crown, an extremely lavish drama series that follows the early reign of Elizabeth II. I had heard of the series before but avoided it because it seemed strange to me to create a drama based on someone who 1) is still alive and 2) presumably not involved in the production of the series and 3) incredibly poised and not known for her dramatic life. My hitherto unnoticed pro-monarchy leanings clearly kicked in because I felt concerned about how the show would portray the Queen. Also, the last biographical drama series I watched based on a monarch was Reign, so I guess I had LOW expectations of historical accuracy and HIGH expectations of drama.
Having now seen the first two episodes I am tentatively enjoying it. The show seems to be much more about ‘The CROWN’ of the title than Elizabeth, and as such gives a lot of time to George VI, whom we meet in the show’s opening hacking up blood. Not long for this world! telegraphs the show, before allowing George to hang about for another two hours.
So, George VI is on the way out, coughing and hacking all over the place with a mysterious illness that culminates in an emergency surgery where they remove one of his lungs. Philip renounces his existing foreign titles in order to marry Elizabeth, and we get some scenes of their happy early married life in Malta. Churchill is elected despite being super-old, George is asked to interfere in politics and refuses. In the second episode Elizabeth and Philip tour the Commonwealth in George’s stead, which leads to some really fantastic cinematography, and then George dies and Elizabeth is dramatically unreachable. The episode ends with Elizabeth’s return to the palace, where her grandmother curtsies to her whilst EXTREMELY OMINOUS MUSIC plays.
Based on my notes, the first two episodes seem actually to be all about Philip. I really enjoy the communication between Philip and Elizabeth, both spoken and unspoken. The moment where Philip is about to tell Elizabeth that George is dead and she looks at him from across the garden and just knows is so beautiful and a really brilliant piece of acting from Foy and Smith. Less impressive but still delightful are all the adoring or saucy looks they exchange, and these combined with the dramatic garden telepathy sell the idea that these two people know each other really well and love each other.
Outside the looks, the dialogue more often seems to be highlighting the tensions in the relationship. There is no avoiding the fact that Philip is pretty whiny at times, but for now I am giving him a pass on his lack of feminism due to his historical context, plus an understanding nod due to the fact that I think even today being married to a royal can be a tough gig. Philip has to give up his job, move countries, and put up with in-laws who are constantly putting him in his place. We should also remember that George VI died in his fifties, so Philip was probably expecting to have a lot longer to live his semi-normal Malta life.
In tune with my Philip sympathy, I think I read his behaviour differently from most people in two moments in episode two. The first is when Philip, Elizabeth and their guide encounter an elephant. When Philip refuses to escort Elizabeth to the ladder it seems like a pig-headed response, but when he steps up to distract the elephant, even though it is a STUPID ACT it made me reinterpret the scene as Philip choosing to stay to protect Elizabeth as opposed to fleeing with Elizabeth.
The second is when he scurries to follow Elizabeth out of the plane when they return to England. It could be an angry reaction to the news that he now always has to walk behind her. But equally his initial impulse to escort her seems more about wanting to support her. In the initial version, the secretary says ‘Ready Ma’am?’ and makes as if to follow Elizabeth as she leaves the plane, and Philip stands up and says ‘It’s alright, I’ll escort her from here’ as if to say ‘of the two of us, I’m Elizabeth’s team, not you’. In the Italian dub, he says ‘Eccomi cara,’ or ‘Here I am, dear,’ instead of ‘It’s all right’. This change from addressing the secretary to addressing Elizabeth contributes to the reading that Philip is trying to be supportive.
Elizabeth herself, as interpreted by Claire Foy, is often difficult to read. When we first see her, watching Philip renounce his titles, I had NO IDEA what the show wanted us to make of her mood. The show is mostly focused on setting up her relationships with Philip and George, which I think it does well. The main thing I took away from her characterisation in these episodes was the sense that she is unprepared to be Queen. Although a quick googling suggests this isn’t entirely historically accurate, I guess it helps give the character an arc. I think I will wait and see how her portrayal evolves. Possibly this is one of the reasons I thought Philip was surprisingly likeable – his emotions and thought-processes are a lot more straightforward and obvious than a lot of the other characters at the moment.
In the miscellaneous observations, I love the gorgeous settings and clothes. This show is really a feast for the eyes. I also thought the commonwealth visit was fairly well handled, in that it induced a faint sense of unease in the viewer. Elizabeth saying that Nairobi used to be a ‘savage place’ made me wince, as did Philip’s stupid comments. Life for people under the commonwealth is obviously not the focus of the show, but I think it managed to avoid glorifying empire. The camera lingers on the faces of the Kenyan people but their expressions don’t give much away, as if to make us aware that there are other stories here without actually telling them. The dramatic aspects swing between hilarious melodrama and genuinely touching: I particularly liked the part where George sings carols at a Christmas party, but at times I just wanted him to get on with dying so we could see Elizabeth take the throne.
Have you seen the Crown? What do you think of it? What do you think of Philip?