The Crown - A Review.
Claire Foy’s Queen - that vibrant, dazzling, emotional, uncertain, love-struck girl of season one, and the tormented by doubts young woman of season two, was a delight to watch, but she might as well have existed only in the author’s mind. For all we know, she was nothing but a literary device used to humanise a symbol, to animate a statue. But the Queen of Season three – Colman’s Queen? We kind of know her. We’ve “met” her before. She is the Queen of staged royal wedding photos and oil paintings. The Queen of Xmas messages, of rehearsed, generic, well-timed chitchats with celebrities. She is the headscarf-wearing Queen of blurry Hello! magazine photos who is surrounded by dogs and horses and land rovers. She is the Queen on British stamps and bank notes. She is the Queen who is walking with her hands behind her back, inspecting soldiers in funny hats. Aloof, and distant, and a little bit banal.
Art & Words by Fanitsa Petrou.
Where would British period dramas be, without arranged marriages, cold parents, ghastly childhoods, the betrayal of true love, absurd hereditary privileges that must be defended at all costs, sex scandals, cruel boarding schools, alcoholism, repressed emotions, big draughty rooms full of heirlooms and corgis, and an abundance of stiff upper lips? Not to mention funny hats! Yet The Crown stands apart from the rest, and even though it certainly offers all of the above in generous portions, it has surprisingly given us more than what we have anticipated: you go into it expecting it to be no more than a kind of voyeuristic look at the British royals, but a couple of minutes in, you realise that this is hardly a soap (though there are definitely elements of that genre present here, just because the real life events of this family saga are so dramatic and over the top, that they might as well have been invented for the screen). This is not just a riveting drama, the most expensive TV show ever created, or one of the most beautiful ones we have ever seen, this is actually, a thoughtful piece that handles the story of a family, as well as the political landscape and the history of a specific period of a country, with seriousness, and emotional intelligence.
In the first scene of the first episode of season 3, Olivia Colman as the Queen, is asked to inspect a stamp with her profile.
“A great many changes. But there we are!” she says, as she compares it with the one that carries Clair Foy’s image (who played her younger self in previous seasons). It’s a clever and cheeky way of telling us: “This is the new cast. They look different. They are older. Deal with it! Netflix, the production company behind the lavish epic, has been clear from the start on its intention to replace actors every two seasons, (which covers about two decades) and so season three (that premiered on the 17th of November 2019) introduces a new cast: Olivia Colman steps into the shoes of Clair Foy as the Queen, Tobias Menzies is replacing Matt Smith as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings passes the baton to Derek Jacobi as Duke of Windsor, Charles Dance is replacing Greg Wise as Lord Mountbatten, Helena Bonham Carter is replacing Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, while Josh O’Connor is Prince Charles and Erin Doherty plays princess Ann. Only John Lithgow is allowed to briefly reprise his role as Winston Churchill in the third series. A well deserved honour for the actor who once again, gives a flawless performance (Even his wordless moaning is Emmy-worthy!)
There is something more sombre - even grim - about this season, despite the expensive budget and the amazing sets. There is a kind of shift in the palette that accurately reflects the shift in tone. It finds the Queen several decades into her incumbency - and into her marriage. This is no longer the story of young love and beginnings. This is a story about middle-aged people settling into the prescribed roles, (or in the case of Princess Margaret, being unable to do so and still struggling to cope with the same sort of challenges that were imposed on her at youth, and failing spectacularly!) This is clearly a different world, and in many respects, this “new” Queen is a different woman. Colman was given a tougher job actually, as she has a lot less to play with, than Claire Foy had, since the Queen at that age is seen by the writers as more confident and far more rigid - and more settled in her marriage as well, though interestingly not without regrets! Gone are the ambivalence and the doubt and the emotional struggles and the dilemmas. (Or mostly, gone anyway) There's a lot less of the Woman here, and more of the Queen, the icon, the symbol. This is perhaps we are being told, what she BECAME rather than who she was at heart. The transition is complete. This Queen is certain about her place in the world and therefore this canvas is more of a monochrome, and Colman served that very well. Magnificently so, actually. (Yes, despite her “leftwing face” …)
Claire Foy’s Queen - that vibrant, dazzling, emotional, uncertain, love-struck girl of season one, and the tormented by doubts young woman of season two, was a delight to watch, but she might as well have existed only in the author’s mind. For all we know, she was nothing but a literary device used to humanise a symbol, to animate a statue. But the Queen of Season three – Colman’s Queen? We kind of know her. We’ve “met” her before. She is the Queen of staged royal wedding photos and oil paintings. The Queen of Xmas messages, of rehearsed, generic, well-timed chitchats with celebrities. She is the headscarf-wearing Queen of blurry Hello! magazine photos who is surrounded by dogs and horses and land rovers. She is the Queen on British stamps and bank notes. She is the Queen who is walking with her hands behind her back, inspecting soldiers in funny hats. Aloof, and distant, and a little bit banal. You can easily imagine “Colman’s” Queen cutting ribbons and Christening ships, playing the well-rehearsed role with cold efficiency and a seemingly complete lack of inner turmoil. Following well choreographed steps, exchanging polite and cold pleasantries with local dignitaries she secretly despises for the usual reasons of having the ‘wrong” accent (which is to say, for having the audacity of not being born into her world) or at the very least, for claiming her time - and pieces of her - in the process. But you know, still doing her duty. Still smiling. Still playing the role that was assigned to her. No longer being tormented by doubts whether or not she should.
No wonder so many viewers “prefer” the Claire Foy Queen (if social media comments are anything to go by...) It’s not that Olivia Colman has done an inferior job as an actor, it’s because she has done such a spectacular one. It’s because she was so good at capturing that stoic, emotionally repressed energy, that unbending confidence, that sense of duty that crushes your humanity. That is why “Foy’s” Queen is more loved (or why Diana was more loved than all the royals put together): It’s because we all instinctually gravitate away from coldness, apathy, detachment, and towards anyone who exhibits a capacity for feeling empathy and doubt and turmoil and an understanding of human frailty.
Seasons one and two, allowed us to (hypothetically at least,) peek not just behind the hermitically closed doors of the Buckingham Palace, but also behind the royal façade and get a glimpse of the woman. She was not an icon in that ones. She was a real, breathing, human being. A woman who was kind of naïve and open. Who would keep a diary, and would get on her knees and pray each night like a little girl. Who would believe the words of a mass Evangelist and of someone like Jackie Kennedy... A young woman who was seriously smitten with her husband, who would wear strapless evening gowns, and who was fragile and vulnerable, and burdened by the weight of duty, trying to make sense of her world. Trying to cope with her insecurities about her lack of education; with the loss of a beloved father; with men in suits who respected the establishment that put her on that position but who were still telling her what she was about; with a husband who was a handful, and had a wandering eye, and an ego that constantly needed to be soothed; with a job she never wanted; with a sister who loved and envied her, and whom she loved and envied herself and so on. But in season three we meet her at a point in which her internal conflicts are now well buried beneath the (now made of granite) surface, and all that suggests that they still exist, are scattered moments in which she allows a hint of dismay to pass her eyes, a hint of frustration that is so subtle, so expertly concealed (or rather barely visible) by Colman, that you can easily miss it. It is only when she allows that self that is hidden beneath the surface of her resentful surrender to duty that we get to see a glimpse of the human woman. Such moments are rare, and brief, and yet they provide Colman with the opportunity to show what volumes they betray! (And the type of actor she is!) What can be done with nuance, unspoken words and a single glance.
The Queen she creates, is one that’s carved in stone, looking older - sure - but also, somehow, much like the real Queen, ageless, or rather beyond age. That’s the thing that ages us all, after all. Not time, not even misfortunes, disappointment, losses, obstacles that come in our way, but how much we feel! (Doctors have it wrong: it’s not what we eat. It’s what we FEEL, how much we give, that will do us in, in the end! How we allow our self to embrace wholeheartedly what we love, and be crashed by what we loose. Not to mention how ready we are to allow life to teach us harsh lessons. In short, how we allow ourself to change, as our life changes)
“The rest of us drop like flies,” her sister Margaret tells her in the last episode of the season, “but she goes on and on”. Nothing can move her to the point of changing her, is what we are being told. And we have been warned by the creator of the series that this is what season 3 would be all about: in the closing minutes of season two, there is this scene in which the entire family is posing for a photo after the christening of the royal couple’s fourth child. Everyone is talking, moving, laughing, arguing, but she stays in her place, sitting still in the middle of them all, looking at the camera (always aware that someone is watching). Already turned into a statue!
That’s the point of her. That’s how she has endured. That’s how she is still around - and still looking like she did pretty much, decades ago… Because she stood still at the centre of tornadoes, at the centre of a changing world, while it was spinning around her, evolving, being crashed and reinvented in turns. She remained seemingly unmoved by it all, and therefore untouched by it too. Secure. The longest-reigning monarch in history, but more than that: stuck in time. The personification of an anachronism, as much as an example of steadfastness and loyalty! And there’s something cold in that, sure, but there is a beauty in it too. This is what I feel prompts Peter Morgan (the writer/creator of The Crown) to visit the theme of her, so often. First with his movie “The Queen” (2006), in which he examined her reaction to the news of Princess Diana’s death, then with the play “The Audience” (2016), that centres around her weekly meetings with her various prime ministers, and now with this magnificent epic. His work is both an exposé of sorts, about the dark, cold, heartless side of the royal family, but it is at its heart, also, a love letter to HER. And we follow in his steps: we are both outraged at the absurdity, the pointlessness and the coldness of that privileged world, and at the same time, we are shamelessly fascinated by it. And much like him (or through him), we too are searching (hoping!) for the human faces behind the statues. We too, are looking for the cracks on those masks waiting for them to slip and crumble and reveal a softness, a warmth, a fragility hiding underneath. That is why we keep coming for more…
Helena Bonham Carter, paints a colourful picture as the younger sister of an icon. Ambitious, jealous, charismatic, manic, funny, venomous, glamorous, self-destructive, deeply unhappy, and deeply embittered that she is still in the shadows, and that her marriage is such a trainwreck, (and one imagines, that middle age offers its cruel lessons at a point when she is so vulnerable). She predictably goes for the usual remedies and attempts of escape: alcohol, pills, exotic beaches, a young man’s body, and eventually, a suicide attempt that devastates her sister, (offering Colman a rare chance to exhibit emotion)
Margaret does get a moment to shine, before she reaches her nadir point though, when (in the episode “Margaretology”) she represents her sister at a state visit to the US, and ends up securing a bail out from the Americans by charming the Anglophobic president Lyndon B Johnson. She wins him over by bad mouthing Kennedy (to her sister’s horror), and goes on to save the deteriorating economy of her country with a little bit of singing, a little bit of dancing and by reciting dirty limericks to him at an official party. Not to mention kissing him on the mouth… That limericks business (and the kiss) never took place according to the royal biographer Hugo Vickers who has written an entire book on the – according to him - many inaccuracies of The crown) though it seems unlikely that the writer of The Crown would have come up with something so specific if it never happened in reality. Not to mention it is a “talent” that might have run in the family: in the King’s Speech (which is – let’s face it - “The Crown, season 0”) her father uses similar sexist dirty limericks in order to overcome his stutter… She must have picked it up from him. In any case, when she returns victorious to England, she asks that she is given more such duties only to be silenced by her sister who sternly reminds her that there’s more to her role than parties… It is interesting that the Queen’s sister, her husband, and later her son, are all searching for roles in a world that offers them none other than being her supporting cast. And none of them can stomach it gracefully. Or accept it without a fight.
Despite her being her usual, spectacular, sparkly self, as the messy Princess Margaret, giving us the vulnerability, the flair, the loneliness, the pain of the Queen’s sister, Helena Bonham Carter has (behind the Brit-eccentric’ s façade) a warmth, a softer side that is unmistakably hers, which is present in every role she plays, and which is somehow unconvincing when she plays heroines that have a cold, hard edge as well. When she, for example, dismisses with a wave of her hand and a cold “None of that” the native kids who were waiting God knows for how long for her plane to arrive to the island of her vacations in order to greet her, you can almost hear her saying in her head “I’m sorry! I’m so SOOO sorry!! I didn’t mean it.” Colman has a bit of that too: her real life compassionate, hilarious persona and “jolly” nature, occasionally slip in, adding the tiniest – and welcome - touch of humour into otherwise sombre scenes. (I do hope she wins every award that's out there, not only because she deserves it, but also because her acceptance speeches are just adorable, not to mention hilarious)
Charles Dance is criminally underused as Lord Mountbatten, but still manages to give texture and nuance to - yet another - upper class cold fish; while Josh O’Connor is a revelation as Prince Charles. (Who knew that young Larry from “The Durrells” had that in him?) He manages to paint a sympathetic picture of Prince Charles, and portrays with empathy his vulnerability, his broken heart, his loneliness, and his desire to rebel against the family as well as his overwhelming desire to be a part of it. His own description of his place in the world is quite revealing: “It’s not so much an existence but a predicament. I am both free and imprisoned. Utterly superfluous and quite indispensable.” In two episodes seen from his own the point of view, we get to see the “predicament” to which he refers: the first deals with his investiture as a prince of Wales -which takes place in Wales, a place that is – understandably – both alien to him, and hostile towards him- and the second is centred around his relationship with Camilla Shand - soon to become Camilla Parker Bowles after the family conspires to make it happen, and thus repeating a mistake that proved to have been tragic for princess Margaret. We see his love for Camilla, as well as his need to prove himself to a mother who finds it hard to see him as her true heir. When - in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the season - he tells her in desperation: “Mummy, I have a voice!” she replies chillingly: “Let me let you into a secret. No one wants to hear it.”“Are you talking about the country, or my own family?” he asks grasping onto the hope that it is at least the former. Her answer (“No one!”) leaves little room for that.
Tobias Menzies, much like Olivia Colman, has a less colourful palette with which to paint his character than the one his predecessor had. Matt Smith who played the younger Philip in seasons one and two, was given the opportunity to flex his thespian muscles to spectacular effect, as he was given so much to play with: a revisiting of his tough childhood (his abandonment by a cruel father and a mad mother, the loss of half of his family in a plane crash, the Nazi relatives, the surviving of that Spartan-like school he was forced to attend), then having globetrotting naval adventures, being involved in sex scandals and extramarital affairs with Russian ballerinas and exotic island girls, and of course the ever present realisation that he is destined to always and for ever, play second fiddle to his wife. Tobias Menzies still does a great job at chaneling an older Prince Philip (the body language, the turn of the head, the arrogant, almost absentminded “I-can’t-be-bothered stare), yet, the best he has to work with, is briefly being reunited with his mother (an excellent Jane Lapotaire) and having a kind of religious awakening, triggered by the Moon Landing, which is no more than a mid life crisis of course, and a revisiting of those old feelings of negated machismo, despondency, and ennui.
The Queen also has a version of that (a glimpse that is, of the untaken path), when on an equestrian-related trip to America with the friend of her youth Porchy, (who, as we know from previous seasons used to be in love with her) she admits, in a rare, (and therefore quite significant) moment of sincerity, that this is what she would have liked to do in life (breed horses) if only she was free to choose and – shockingly - this is the company she would have liked to keep as well! And we get that! It’s actually heartbreaking to see the story of her marriage unfold (especially in previous seasons) and it makes perfect sense that at this point in her life she would have some regrets. Much like most of the long (and celebrated-for-nothing-but-their-longevity) marriages of everyday women, hers was based on her tolerance more than on anything else. Hurt and crashed as she was by her husband’s cheating, she was still willing to bite the bullet and stay in the marriage, one feels not simply because no other alternatives were available to her, divorce being such an anathema in her world, but because she – like many women of her generation – truly believed that 1) she didn’t deserve him, 2) men “would be men” and 3) “turning a blind eye, is the best approach” as she says somewhere. Even without his cheating, her husband was it seems, a constant concern, a problem she was forced to face again and again. Despite being the most powerful woman in the world, she still had to endure his condescending, sexist and degrading remarks, she still had to make herself smaller, so that his own, shattered by her power ego would not be threatened. She still had to appease him, placate him, make excuses for him, and invent jobs for him, so that he would feel included, useful, and as terribly important as he obviously believed he was... (It was a sexist world, but then again so is ours: Claire Foy was actually being paid less than Matt Smith in the first series, even though she was the protagonist of the piece! The irrational gender gap was later covered, but the fact remains that it was initially considered OK!)
Episode three, is perhaps the one that hammers the message of “who she’s become” the most. It recounts a horrifying disaster that took place in 1966, and claimed the lives of 144 people (116 of which were children) in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan. The Queen’s delayed response (that brings to mind her delayed response to the news of princess Diana’s death years later,) is the focus of the episode. Her decision to stay at the palace instead of fly to Aberfan in order to comfort the townsfolk, is justified by her as a wish to stay out of the way of the rescue operations. When she is practically forced to go there, (eight days too late), she appears to be unable to have genuine, human responses when she hears the devastated parents talking about their now dead kids (one can’t help but imagine what the aforementioned Diana would have said and done upon hearing those grieving parents! She would have probably hugged them and cried with them, instead of offer no more than a cold handshake and a minute of her time) The Queen is saved by her secretary who whispers in her ear: “This is Wales, not England. A display of emotion would not just be considered appropriate, it’s expected,” We then see her patting her eyes with her white handkerchief – to prove that she is, indeed human. Later, in one of the most intimate and moving moments of the whole series, she confesses to Prime Minister Wilson that she had to fake her crying! She goes on to admit that she is unable to cry or be moved by emotions like other people. As much as it is a compelling moment that gives Colman a rare opportunity to show us what she can do with a single pause and unsaid words, it is a strange choice in terms of writing. It may be an appropriate response coming from the mouth of this middle aged, detatched Queen, but it somehow negates season one and two, in which we saw her exhibit an abundance of emotions. Saying “I can’t cry any more”, rather than “I can never cry” would have made more sense… It’s not that she was unfeeling, it was that she had to become that in the process, we were told, after all…
The episodic nature of The Crown, especially in this season, allows it to visit specific events of British history, or to focus on different members of the royal family. Princess Margaret gets two standalone episodes for example, as do prince Charles and Prince Philip. This is a departure from the more Queen-centric nature of seasons one and two, but it weaves a richer tapestry as it broadens the show’s scope. Since this season ends when prince Charles loses Camilla, it is safe to assume that season four will be centred around the Diana-Charles marriage, and of course, the Thatcher years, and possibly Lord Mountbatten's murder by the IRA. But will it dare to at least hint on the later's alleged pederasty and his affiliations with the person who was involved in the Kincora Boy’s Home in Ireland, that provided child victims to pederast aristocrats? In any case, the recent “Andrew scandal” and his own affiliations with a convicted child abuser, are drawing some shady parallels. All of that, and possibly the tax evasion 2017 scandal that involved the royal family including the Queen (see: "The Paradise Papers") are ensuring that seasons five and six will also have a lot to deal with as well...
Chronologically speaking, the third season of The Crown covers the period from 1964-1977. The bailout by the Americans, the discovering of a KGB spy who was larking in the palace (providing an opportunity for further associations between “the face” and “the mask” that hides it, which is in many ways the central theme of the series), the Moon landing, the Aberfan tragedy, the miner’s strikes and the resulting power cuts, Churchill’s and the Duke of Windsor ‘s deaths, a putative coup that was orchestrated by a member of the royal family, yet it leaves out some pretty noteworthy political events (not to mention Princess Ann’s wedding and her kidnaping) For a show that has been heavily shaded by politics, the fact that season three fails to even mention Northern Ireland, and the events of the “Bloody Sunday” (1972) for example, does not go unnoticed. Is the omission of such a significant event, simply a reluctance to touch a thorny subject, or is it hinting on the royal family’s complete alienation from their people, hinting they are simply unaffected by the fact that the British army had actually opened fire on civilians? The same can be said of seasons two and three of course, that chronologically coincided with the first stages of decolonisation, something that was largely overlooked. The freedom fighters from different parts of the Empire, were seen as “bloody natives” stirring up trouble, instead of oppressed people fighting for autonomy and democracy.
The British Empire may have lost its colonies, but the impact, the grave repercussions of colonialism, are lasting, and have branded the history of so many countries and the personal lives of so many generations of people from around the world, even though we hardly get to hear their voices any more. Which makes it almost shocking when we rarely do: a couple of days ago, the award-winning poet George Mpanga has revealed he turned down an MBE (the honour of being a “Member of the Order of the British Empire”) because "the colonial trauma inflicted on the children of Africa, entrenched across our geopolitical and macroeconomic realities prevents me from accepting the title Member of the British Empire. It will remain unacceptable to me until Britain takes institutional measures to address inter-generational disruption brought to millions as a result of her colonial exploits.”
He shouldn’t be holding his beath… The British people’s noble fight against fascism in WWII, may have branded their history, but similar notions about independence were not seen as a right the Empire’s subjects were allow to have after all. In the first season for example, when the young (then princess) Elisabeth visits Nairobi, in her speech to the white colonialists, she tells us (with no sense of irony, or obviously, self-awareness) that Nairobi used to be full of Africans and wild animals, but now thankfully it is not…(!) Similary, Churchill’s policy of sending troops to any region that dared to rebel against the British rule, (like in the case of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya for example. Or Cyprus for that matter) is not mentioned in season one. A TV series is understandably not a documentary. Not everything can be included in every episode, that’s not the point of it. Specific artistic choices are being made for the sake of smooth plot lines and good story telling, but if these events (and sadly, countless similar ones) were to be mentioned, it might have added something quite meaningful to the picture Peter Morgan paints in the third season, in which we begin to see the gradual corrosion of the Queen’s heart (if not of her humanity)!This is what she was called to protect after all! This is what she was called to reign over. Not merely her people, but half the world!(Whether they liked it or not.) And it had to be done with an iron fist and hard, cruel decisions (which she may did not have to make, but which she still endorsed). Hers was in reality, a bloody throne. The traditions, the crown, she was trying so hard to safeguard, could only be protected with the continuation of a class system that perpetuated the privileges of the few – in her own country, but also, across three continents! And it could only be done with bloodshedding: with the signed by her hand death penalties of freedom fighters, the merciless crushing of rebellions, and the evil policy of “divide and conquer” that has left countless wounds (which are still bleeding, decades later) in so many places. (Or in the case of Wales, the sinking of entire villages, which had to be sacrificed for the good of England – an event that at least gets to be mentioned) That’s how she got to become the Queen we see in season three! The establishment's inability to - even today - face realities in its own country, the suffering of its own people (like for example an actual rise in infant mortality in modern-day England that is linked to poverty! ) let alone in other countries which were affected by colonialism, and it's inability to offer actual, practical - instead of just symbolic - help to those in need, is a subject that was only briefly touched by the show: when the Queen's mother-in-law was in need of 200 pounds to repair the roof of her convent and 300 pounds for medicine and beds for sick children, all that could be done by the family was to write letters to benefactors asking for money ! When it is suggested by her mother-in-law that a painting or a clock could perhaps be sold to get money for this cause, ("You have so many clocks everywhere! You wouldn't miss one or two surely!" she states the obvious) the Queen's cold reply (or lack of) puts the matters nicely into place...
These are the things, which we assume, have stolen away from her that vibrant, emotional, vulnerable quality that (according to the writers at least) actually existed in her youth, and which was so greatly portrayed by Claire Foy is seasons one and two. That is why this Queen is a different woman. An automaton almost, unable to cry when faced with heart wrenching tragedies involving dead children, and equally, unable to say a kind word to her own son, who even a blind man can see, that’s all he needs in order to become his own best self.
This Queen who stands in the shadows of huge rooms, with her back to the camera, is no longer “Lillibet”. She is a different beast all together. She understands that her destiny, her role, carries the weight of a heavy (and tainted) history, which she still needs to gloss over (with pageantry and teas), to ensure its continuation. “Gestures is all we have,” she says somewhere. “Doing nothing is exactly what we do. And bide our time”. That’s what she is there for! The fact that she knows it (at least this imagined version of hers, does) is actually heartbreaking! Politicians, prime ministers, can at least distant themselves from events that were unrelated to the years they were in power, but we suspect she has no such moral luxuries. She is not a ruler after all, but a symbol, and she therefore carries to the present that which had to be done in the past, in order to ensure her own place in it, in the future. Maybe what Peter Morgan is trying to say with this “new” Queen of his, is that the only way such a thing can be achieved, is by allowing the loss of part of yourself in the process…
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