Film & Television

‘The Crown,’ Season 3: A Tale of Two Sisters

The Queen, whose penchant for referring to herself as “one” rather than in the first person has only increased with middle age, is summing up her approach to pretty much everything. She is a figurehead, not a leader. There are protocols, in her position, that she — or rather, one — must follow. Whether one is pleased or displeased with the results of a general election, one must ask the new prime minister to form a government in one’s name. Whether one would rather see a long-time KGB operative brought to justice, one must respect the guidance of M15 and allow him to remain at large. And, no matter the state of one’s marriage or whether one’s husband can be implicated in a sex scandal or is about to embark on a midlife crisis, one must show the public a supportive partnership, if not always the most affectionate of marriages.

Princess Margaret, portrayed this season by Helena Bonham Carter, does not refer to herself in so abstract and theoretical a way. In fact, she is all about “I, me, and mine.” Convinced from an early age that she should have been queen, she seethes with resentment. A vivacious extrovert with an impulse control issue, she is in sharp contrast to her measured and duty-bound sister. When Margaret and husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones (a consolation prize of sorts after Elizabeth refused permission for her sister to marry lover Peter Townsend) tour America, they become instant celebrities. Elizabeth watches with more than a little envy as her sister attracts the admiration of the people and the press. And, when Margaret becomes an accidental diplomat, asked and then ordered by the Queen to attend a White House dinner to persuade President Johnson to come to Britain’s financial aid, her unique talents accomplish what her sister’s gravitas could not. The evening includes singing, dancing, ill-advised jokes at the late JFK’s expense, and a filthy limerick contest that provides one of the most entertaining scenes of the second episode, “Margaretology.”

Both Colman and Bonham Carter are tremendous in their roles, making it easier to take the leap of faith that the radical cast change requires. (It’s actually a bit easier to imagine Foy growing into Colman than Kirby shrinking five inches to become Bonham Carter, but the more petite actress’s high-spirited and almost desperate ebullience make up for it.) In fact, without exception the new cast is at least as strong as the old. Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) replaces Matt Smith as an older and seemingly more resigned Prince Philip. Ben Daniels (House of Cards) takes over for Matthew Goode as Armstong-Jones. Later in the season, we meet Erin Doherty (Les Misérables) as a teenage Princess Anne, and in a brilliant stroke of casting, Josh O’Connor (The Durrells in Corfu) as Prince Charles, along with Emerald Fennell (Call the Midwife) as a young Camilla Shand. (Next season, we’re promised Emma Corrin (Pennyworth) as the beloved but ill-fated Diana.)

One of the few actors to reprise his role from seasons one and two is six-time Emmy winner (including one for The Crown), John Lithgow. In season three, the world is rapidly changing and Winston Churchill is nearing the end of his remarkable life. Elizabeth, who seems to keep the world at arm’s length (including, unfortunately, her children) hurries to his bedside. Her speech is one of my favorite pieces of writing in this uniformly excellent series. She asks, rhetorically and affectionately, “What would Great Britain have done without its greatest Briton?”

One has discussed the superb acting and exceptional writing; one only has to mention the majestic sets, gorgeous costumes, and dramatic score. The new season of The Crown is less romantic and less of a stirring coming of age story than seasons one and two. But it is every bit as fascinating and moving. As in the earlier seasons, the privileges of a royal are presented as a double-edged sword. Margaret, obligated to live her life as “the Vice-Queen” (not, she laughingly points out, as “the Queen of Vice”), is irredeemably bitter about the life she might have led. Elizabeth, now older and wiser, has embraced her duty but privately wishes she might have been her own person as well as the monarch.  

We are told — often — that the royal family is meant to be unchanging, unmoved, and frankly dull (a directive that Margaret bristled at long before the Windsor children introduced the groundbreaking gossip that would haunt the family through the 80s and 90s). 

It’s a testament to the entire creative team — and most especially to the sublime acting talents of Colman, Bonham Carter, and company, that The Crown offers never a dull moment.

 

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