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Note: this review largely avoids spoilers even though much of the plot is a matter of public record. Because if you're like us, you didn't necessarily know much of it.
Pip pip, hallelujah and God save the Queen, The Crown is returning to Netflix on December 8 for its second series.
There was much excitement following the announcement that Olivia Colman has been cast as the Queen for the show's third and fourth seasons, but there's still plenty to come from the original cast. In these ten episodes, the power team of Claire Foy and Matt Smith return as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, and fans will be happy to hear that the story picks up where it left off last time.
There's been a noticeable shift within the palace walls, however. While much of the first season saw the young Elizabeth learning the ropes after the premature death of her father George VI, the second season sees Queen Elizabeth growing more assured in her role while her relationship with her husband looks anything but secure.
Phillip admires Elizabeth in her royal garb, what she describes as "full battle dress", commenting: "It used to wear you, now you wear it". She has become every inch the regal sovereign but, behind closed doors, she is a besotted wife who fears for her husband's fidelity.
The series opens on a bleak and rainy day in Lisbon. Aboard the royal yacht, in a dingy bedroom, Elizabeth and Phillip resolve to speak frankly about the state of their relationship. The year is 1957 and the press are reporting a crisis in the royal marriage. Photographers frantically scramble to see the boat arrive in port. Divorce is simply not an option, and the pair consider what it will take to make the marriage work for both parties.
Cut to where season one ended, and Phillip and Elizabeth are enjoying one another's company before the Prince's solo Commonwealth tour where he is to open the 1956 Olympics in Australia. They're getting on famously, even shouting at the household staff to "go away!" when the arrival of breakfast interrupts an intimate moment.
However, all this levity does not change the fact that Phillip's gentleman's club, known as the 'Thursday Club', in a pub in Soho, is shrouded in rumours. He has fallen into a crowd of rich and rowdy adulterers and when Elizabeth finds a photograph of a ballerina in her husband's briefcase before his flight she is forced to put on a brave face while doubt and panic set in.
As with the first series, The Crown's cinematography deserves a big, royal fanfare. From the dark and rain-soaked opening scene, to the bright royal functions, to Phillip's adventures abroad, there are so many visuals to enjoy. Phillip's time spent at sea is beautifully shot, with the crisp white naval uniforms glowing in the midday sun and some beautiful images of Phillip's silhouette cast against the lazy evening sun as he looks out on the Pacific Ocean and thinks of home.
While the Prince's time at sea may look beautiful, Elizabeth is in turmoil thinking about his time spent away in exotic climes. Phillip is accompanied by Michael Parker (Daniel Ings), his private secretary and fellow Thursday Club member who insists that "what happens on tour stays on tour" and encourages the men to rank the women of each nation they visit.
"Marriage is a wonderful institution but, let's face it, who wants to live in an institution?" he smirks, having left his wife and two children at home for the tour.
The tug of war between Elizabeth's duty and her fears is depicted exquisitely by Claire Foy, who betrays the Queen's heartbreak in her eyes alone. Feeling scared and lonely at once, her yearning for her husband's return, and indeed for answers, is revealed in a mere flicker of the eyes, a quiet sigh or a long pause. It's acting at its finest.
Watch out for an acting masterclass as Elizabeth watches a film that Phillip has sent to the family from the Antarctic. Matt Smith, meanwhile, portrays Phillip's boyish camaraderie and genuine homesickness in a similarly muted manner. He too is a man in two minds and, torn between two personas, it is in the quiet moments away from his crew that Smith's performance really shines.
Peter Morgan's script continues to be compelling, sympathetic and informative enough for us royal history newbies, with only the odd contrived and cringeworthy line. Remember last series when Elizabeth was spoon-fed the process by which her father and uncle changed their real names to their titles as king? Well, we have one of those brief blips this series, too, when an Australian journalist decides to tell Phillip the story of his own childhood trauma.
It's a jarring scene that feels wholly out of keeping with the rest of the show; surely a little flashback would have been accepted by The Crown's loyal audience.
The script, to its huge credit, excellently handles the rumours of Phillip's infidelity, keeping things as ambiguous as they remain today. With no official word on the Duke of Edinburgh's antics with the Thursday Club, it would have been a misstep for the show to label Phillip one way or another and creator Peter Morgan appears to recognise this, leaving the matter open for his audience to decide.
The script also brilliantly tackles the unfolding Suez Crisis that begins with a bang in the show's opening episode. Elizabeth's impartiality as sovereign is tested with the Prime Minister Anthony Eden's (Jeremy Northam) handling of the seizure of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Nasser (Amir Boutrous).
A private audience between Queen and Prime Minister reveals tensions with little needing to be said. There is also a poignant visual that illustrates the threat that President Nasser posed to Britain at the time, with his fervent desire for "freedom from colonial oppressors" for all of Egypt.
As Egyptian forces storm into the British-owned Suez Canal Company, official documents are thrown into disarray and shower down before a portrait of the Queen. The fixed eyes in the portrait look on at the unfolding chaos, much as Elizabeth herself has to look on and support the reaction of her government.
Not only facing personal difficulties, the late 1950s saw Queen Elizabeth up against her own colonies who were threatening to undermine the monarchy and the British economy.
A dramatic series lies ahead…
The Crown launches on Friday, December 8 on Netflix.
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