With the recent news that Prince Philip will soon be retiring from his formal duties, it’s a great time to look back at the rise of Queen Elizabeth II in the early 20th century. In 2016, Netflix released a wonderful drama that covers the subject. The Crown, a Netflix drama that was released to rave reviews late last year chronicles the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
The program opens in 1947 with King George VI (Jared Harris) commanding the throne. The King, who only took power when his brother (Duke of Windsor) abdicated power, stands as a beloved icon who inspired the nation during World War 2. Unfortunately, his health isn’t well. In 1947, he watches his daughter Elizabeth (Claire Foy) marry her love Philip (Matt Smith) but only a few short years later, he succumbs to illness.
That course of events sets this show into motion. The young and naïve Elizabeth becomes the Queen of England and is forced to take on the power and responsibilities of that iconic position. The role comes with a cost though as Elizabeth faces tricky decisions where her personal preferences don’t align with her new position. During such times though, Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) warns her that “The crown must win. The crown must always win.”
Created by Peter Morgan, who previously wrote The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), the show takes an intimate look at the grandiosity and the limitations of power. Each season of the program will reportedly cover a decade during the reign of Elizabeth with the first season covering the Queen’s first years in power.
At the show’s heart is Foy, who stars as the main character. Foy serves the role honorably well, creating a unique character and personality that is painfully overshadowed by her new responsibilities. Elizabeth has personal opinions as an individual but when she becomes Queen, she’s taught to keep her opinions to herself. According to many of her advisors (including her own mother), the Queen’s role isn’t to become part of political debates. It’s to stand above them as a member of the royal family. Foy has to maintain that non-political persona from the season’s opening episodes (before her reign begins) to the season’s conclusion, which finds her forced to choose between what’s good for her family and what’s good for the kingdom.
Many episodes of the first season focus on specific elements of the decade (similar to how The People vs. O.J. Simpson often focused on specific elements of that case in each episode). One particularly noteworthy episode finds Winston Churchill (played commandingly by John Lithgow), dealing with the public outcry over a continued fog that hangs over London. The episode resonates today with Churchill arguing that the fog will eventually lift (it is weather, after all) while others want him to stand up righteously against it.
The Crown also finds strength by focusing on class differences in British society, similar to what Downton Abbey did. Unlike that show though, this new program has limited some of the soapier elements. The family drama here remains but the melodrama is limited.
This show eloquently reveals the painful costs of power and what it takes to be a leader without losing site of its characters or the history behind the show. It was one of the best programs of last year.
Review by: John Hanlon