‘The Crown’ Does Not Back Down

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
(Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix)

Easily one of the most entertaining productions Netflix has ever streamed, The Crown is a royal soap opera on a grand scale. Lavishly produced by creator-writer Peter Morgan, the drama is one of Netflix’s most expensive series to date, and it features fittingly lavish performances — most prominently by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth and Doctor Who’s Matt Smith as her husband, Philip Mountbatten. The 10-part series, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, delves into more British backbiting, snobbiness, and snippiness than a season’s worth of Downton Abbey.

The Crown begins on Elizabeth’s wedding day in 1947 and carries her story through the 1950s. We witness the deepening conflict between Elizabeth’s responsibilities as queen and her responsibilities as wife and mother. Writer Morgan, who also wrote the 2006 film The Queen, does an excellent job of portraying these emotional pulls while balancing them against the hardheaded intellectual, historical, and political factors that complicated Elizabeth’s life. She emerges as a character who is simultaneously admirable, sad, bold, bristlingly intelligent, and sometimes haplessly intimidated by it all.

Wouldn’t you be, if you were a young woman suddenly having to take meetings with a prime minister as imposing and willful as Winston Churchill? Churchill is played by John Lithgow, one of the few American actors in the production. It took me about one episode to stop looking for, and finding, Lithgow beneath the accent and the makeup. As he revs up in the role, however, Lithgow becomes a thoroughly believable Churchill, and his scenes with Foy — the one-on-one meetings between queen and prime minister — are some of the most enjoyable moments of the series.

Matt Smith is equally strong as Philip, who is depicted as deeply in love with Elizabeth yet whose devotion is strained severely once the crown is placed upon Elizabeth’s head. (“Oooh! Heavy!” she exclaims during a rehearsal for her coronation, her knees buckling just a millimeter or so when it’s nestled on her noggin.) Philip feels ignored by his wife as she assumes her monarchical duties. He’s also somewhat threatened by her increasing confidence and firmness: She takes to heart Winston Churchill’s rhyming observation, “The Crown does not back down.”

Speaking of monarchy — I’m no fan of it. I’m an American, I love my small-d democracy, and therefore I’m not one of those TV Anglophiles who swoons at the prospect of a new depiction of what Philip spitefully refers to as her “queening” around the country. But Morgan and director-producer Stephen Daldry make the show engrossing both as history and as a drama about family ties. Certainly the most prominent subplot — Elizabeth’s fraught relationship with her younger sister, Margaret, played with superb asperity by Vanessa Kirby — is a marvelous depiction of conflict and pain.

In a way, this show is a corrective to the last few seasons of Downton Abbey, as that series became more self-consciously pandering to its fans and a bit soggy with sentimentality. Dry-eyed — indeed, its narrative eye is narrowed to a piercing slit — The Crown deconstructs its history. It’s only in the last couple of episodes that the drama becomes a bit wayward and loose. I presume this is because Morgan needed to end the season while also unraveling a few loose ends to come back to in Season 2. He says he’s got enough material to do six. I’m not sure I could possibly remain as engaged with such queening for that long, but who knows? I never thought I’d be as absorbed in this Crown as I was.

The Crown begins streaming Friday on Netflix.