A new season of The Crown has come to Netflix, set to educate and mislead audiences around the world who remain curious about the elaborate monarchical circus at the head of Empire. While the show continues to be exceptionally well produced, something seems particularly amiss this time around. Something has changed about The Crown — and I don’t just mean the switch of actors, with the new Queen Elizabeth II introduced to us by first swivelling to the first actress to play her, Claire Foy, before showing us the older, statelier Imelda Staunton.
This is the same gimmick the series had pulled in season 3, going to a picture of Foy on a banknote before introducing new monarch Olivia Colman staring at it, and it is this musty smell of old tricks that pervades the new season even as an excellent British cast boards the royal ship. Lesley Manville is inevitably right for Princess Margaret, weilding the long cigarette holder and the mot juste, while it is startling to see Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy of Trainspotting) as buttoned-up prime minister John Major. Better than the real thing.
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That appears to be a recurring thread. Most of these new royals appear to have been handed the wrong ceremonial robes. Dominic West is woefully miscast as the new Prince Charles — he is far too dashing to fit the simpering princeling the show has built up so far. He isn’t merely charismatic, but one who is clearly used to being charming. Similarly, Jonathan Pryce makes for an oddly obsequious Prince Phillip. A show can always alter allegiances but — given how creator Peter Morgan has crafted these characters over the years — these switches feel jarring. This feels like a new series, and one that isn’t particularly well written, one where Diana, Princess Of Wales, takes the prime minister aside to murmur “What happens when the family falls apart? I say the institution falls apart.”
A line so clumsy and spelt-out belongs in a spoof of The Crown, and this parodic feeling is underlined by the performance of Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. Debicki, a striking visual approximation of the late Princess, is a compelling actor — she was, for instance, the best part of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — but here she seems trapped: every glance is downward, every word spoken furtively. It feels like she’s mimicking Kristen Stewart’s magnificent performance as Diana in Spencer (Amazon Prime Video) instead of sculpting a new interpretation. Speaking of that fantastic Pablo Larrain film — a psychological horror film centering around Diana — is it possible we may have exhausted the coffers of royal interest? Are we done telling stories about princesses and paparazzi? Stories that the tabloids have already told us?
The Crown plays out like a fancy-dress ball featuring acting royalty. Here is the wonderful Staunton as the Queen, gazing balefully at creamed scones she isn’t supposed to eat, while Debicki’s Diana carries an armful of Vogue magazines while telling her son she’s “off to read the classics.” The actors may all be having a good time but the show feels inescapably trivial. The Crown was once a Netflix milestone, a show I have admired in the past for its craft and its performances — and specific episodes, like the first season masterwork where Winston Churchill had his portrait painted, featured impressively cinematic storytelling — but I couldn’t take its self-congratulatory tone any longer. After hearing the Queen speak about “the continuing vitality of British udders,” this viewer abdicated after episode one.
There is one smart scene in that opening episode. It involves the Queen’s aides trying to shield her — and Princess Ann — from an inflammatory story splashed across the front page of The Sunday Times. When Princess Ann sees the newspaper, she is told that what she saw is the previous day’s paper. When she points out the unlikelihood of an edition of The Sunday Times on a Saturday, the mistake is corrected and she is told what she glimpsed was the last week’s paper.
The Crown, alas, seems content serving up yesterday’s newspapers. That may be where England lives now, in headlines of yore. There was something sweet about the idea of this fictionalised but fun series being (secretly) watched by the Queen herself — a Queen who, we are reliably told, used to love the televised dance-contest Strictly Come Dancing — but now that the long-reigning monarch has left the building, the mildewed institutions themselves feel hollow and unimpressive. Watching a sensible British prime minister, or a debonair Charles, feels not only fictional but fantastical. The Empire is asleep and dreaming.
In the first episode, the Queen and her husband bully the prime minister into making the public pay for a ship she likes. It is a sickening misuse of power. These are not heroes, much as The Crown intends to give them the last word with a fawning show of sympathy. It is all too clear that the monarchy is a bit like the Saturday edition of The Sunday Times. It shouldn’t exist.
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