Film & Television

‘The Crown and the Windsors’: Royally Entertaining

“Two women running the show. That’s the last thing this country needs,” sneers Prince Philip in his blasé monotone.

The queen is quick to counter, “Perhaps that’s precisely what this country needs.”

Perhaps it was what the enormously popular Netflix original series The Crown needed too. Because season four is one of, if not the most gripping to date, and — for the first time since the show launched in 2016 — Elizabeth II is very often not the central character. There are two women who upstage her: Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher.

The season begins in 1977 and ends in 1990, an emotionally tempestuous period for the ruling House of Windsor. Many of us remember those real-life years, from unrest in Northern Ireland, to the Prince and Princess of Wales’ “fairytale” wedding, to the 10-week Falklands conflict between the UK and Argentina. It was also a time when the press, spurred on by the worldwide superstardom of Lady Di, took off whatever was left of its kid gloves. For the tabloids, it was open season on the royals. The media frenzy that began when then-teen Diana was dating Charles, exploded throughout their troubled marriage, and was certainly instrumental in its eventual dissolution.

For Crown viewers, this changes the experience. I’ve seen photos and film of Elizabeth’s coronation, but I wasn’t born until the following decade. So, to see series creator Peter Morgan fill in the blanks, while fascinating and entertaining, doesn’t confirm — or challenge — my memories. Watching now, I not only know the story of Diana, but I pulled an all-nighter to watch her marry her prince. I still remember each exact outfit she wore, and when, and so apparently does The Crown’s fantastic costumer Amy Roberts. (Yes, Di’s iconic “black sheep” novelty sweater is there, and, surely not a coincidence, is available for sale again by original designer Rowing Blazers.)

Nicknamed “the people’s princess,” Diana lent a very human, not to mention very lovely, face to the monarchy. There have been several attempts to tell her story on the big and little screens; she’s been played by actresses ranging from Dynasty alumna (and minor royal herself) Catherine Oxenberg to Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts. The Crown, by casting young and relatively unknown Emma Corrin, has succeeded brilliantly where the others have failed.

Corrin doesn’t look exactly like Diana, but she has mastered the late princess’s mannerisms, shy eyes, and head tilt, and captured her posh, soft-spoken voice. The actress, who was only two years old when Diana died in a Paris car crash, will be replaced next season by the older and more sophisticated Elizabeth Debicki (Vita and Virginia). But Corrin couldn’t be happier about her single season with The Crown. “I really was charmed by getting to know younger Diana,” she recently told Variety. “I love the Diana we meet in the beginning for so many reasons. This is the Diana no one knows about.” In an interview with British Vogue, she added, “I feel I’ve got to know Diana like you would a friend. I know that sounds really weird, but I get a great sense of companionship from her. I suppose, over time, you kind of start to patch together a sense of empathy and a sense of understanding.”

From her disappointed infatuation with Charles and emotional alienation from the rest of “the firm” to her subsequent eating disorder, it isn’t difficult to empathize with The Crown’s Diana. Season four’s other new leading lady, Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, is a tougher nut to crack. Gillian Anderson (The X-Files and War and Peace) delivers an impeccable performance that feels at first like a finely crafted caricature but quickly becomes fascinating and multilayered. The “Iron Lady,” portrayed most recently by Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, has never been quite so steely. Or, at times, so human. She and her husband fumble through their first visit to Balmoral and she breaks down in her audience with the queen when her son, a cross-country race driver, is reported missing. Elizabeth is quick to assure her that despite being the first female prime minister to visit Buckingham Palace, she is not the first to break down; there are “paper hankies” discreetly hidden nearby.

Both Diana and Thatcher shine a light on personality traits that the queen is missing. Diana may not be an intellectual (a point that her whiny husband is quick to complain about), but what her IQ may be lacking, she more than makes up for with her SQ (social quotient) and EQ (emotional quotient). With Diana as a ready comparison, Elizabeth has never seemed quite so cold. Similarly, her encounters with Thatcher shake her confidence that she knows her people, much less knows what they need. While Maggie is all business, Elizabeth is all for show.

Olivia Colman, extraordinarily gifted Oscar-, BAFTA-, and Golden Globe-winner, plays out her second and final season as Elizabeth as a woman who can’t afford to let her inner conflicts surface. She’s matured from Clare Foy’s depiction of the young princess we met four years ago, and though her understanding may be greater, so too is her firm entrenchment in tradition and protocol. She knows enough to scold Charles for his downright cruelty to his pregnant wife, but she can’t reach out to the unhappy girl herself. In fact, when Diana tries to embrace the queen, she’s rebuffed.

Colman is excellent, as are virtually all the cast, including Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret, Tobias Menzies’s Philip, Erin Doherty’s Anne, Josh O’Connors’s Charles, and stand-out Emerald Fennell as Camilla Parker Bowles. The sets are sumptuous and the production perfectly captures the dichotomy of the royals, their potential glitz and glamour nearly always balanced with stiff-lipped understatement and weathered country clothes. When distressed commoner Michael Fagan (Tom Brooks) breaks into the queen’s bedchamber (a 1982 real-life security breach of rather immense proportion), he’s shocked by the palace’s peeling paint and crumbling walls. For her part, Elizabeth/Colman gives a master class is “keeping calm and carrying on.”

Season four of The Crown may well be the series’ most ambitious to date. And it comes at a most welcome time. As we head into winter and new stay-at-home orders, we can take comfort in the steadiness of an institution as unwavering — for better or worse — as the British monarchy. To experience just a few minutes of the reassurance the queen has strived to offer her people, listen to (the real) Elizabeth’s speech when the pandemic began in April. “We will meet again,” she promises. And, even as “Yanks,” we believe her.

If you’re not a monarchist, or you just prefer your royals with a generous side order of satire, try The Windsors, also on Netflix. The comedy series follows the ridiculous antics of a host of familiar figures. There’s a perpetually addled Prince Charles (Harry Enfield), passionate about his conservation projects and quite desperate to have at least a few years on the throne, and his wife Camilla Parker-Bowles (Haydn Gwynne) who’s sick to death of hearing “You’ll never be a queen, you know. You’ll only be a princess consort.” There’s a heroic if rather out-of-touch William (Hugh Skinner) and his bride Kate (Louise Ford), who isn’t just a commoner; she and her family are gypsies. There’s a (literally) illiterate Harry (Richard Goulding), who couples first with a conniving and bootylicious Pippa (Morgana Robinson) and then with a self-righteous American actress (Kathryn Drysdale). And there are the so-called “minor royals:” show business-obsessed Edward (Matthew Cottle), jet-setter persona non gratis Andrew (Tim Wallers), and demented horsewoman Anne (Vicki Pepperdine). Philip, although never on camera, keeps in touch with a steady stream of profane notes and telegrams.

My favorites are the daft “Sloane Ranger” sisters Princesses Beatrice (Ellie White) and Eugenie (Celeste Dring), and their outcast mum Fergie (Katy Wix). For a quick taste, watch the music video they create to convince their dad to join them at Sandringham for Christmas.

The one person who never appears, either in-person or by post, is the queen. No matter how outrageous and irreverent the series gets, that’s the one line it never crosses. Perhaps this shows a genuine respect for the monarch. Or perhaps the creative team, the late George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler-Moore, was just a bit afraid of her.

Either way, thank you, Netflix. And “God save our gracious queen.”

 

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