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A princess who rhymes with peril

The standout episode this year is titled Beryla nickname Princess Margaret uses while signing a mirror with a conveniently kept diamond

Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’.
Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’.

Princess Margaret is not easily impressed. The second season of playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s opulent Netflix series The Crown showed up on television sets across the world last week, and it takes a while to find its feet. This it achieves with an excellent fourth episode, a cinematic overture that leaves behind the maddeningly dull marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in order to shine a light on the prettier, sassier and—naturally—more exasperated sister. Or, at the very least, the sister allowed to express her fatigue.

The Crown is, at heart, a series about keeping up appearances. The impressive first season saw the death of King George and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II with weighty historical storytelling, yet the show peaked with a largely internal episode—the ninth one, titled Assassins, directed by Benjamin Caron—that involved Winston Churchill having his portrait painted by the celebrated artist Graham Sutherland. An introspective and metaphor-heavy episode, it was cinematically expansive with dramatic ambition and showed off one of the finest television performances of last year: John Lithgow as an unlikely, unforgettable Churchill.

The standout episode this year is titled Beryl—a nickname Princess Margaret uses while signing a mirror with a conveniently kept diamond—and it is primarily an episode about having a picture taken. Cecil Beaton, photographer and chronicler of royal faces that shine forth with dreamy otherworldliness, is trying to take Margaret’s portrait, and she can’t stand the stuffiness, or the best-case scenario that she’ll look like her mother. “No one wants complexity or reality from us," the Queen Mother assures, before Beaton breaks into a daft soliloquy about a fictitious woman who lives in strife and who, on seeing the picture of a dolled-up princess in the papers, will break out the “new neckerchief" she has saved up for and walk out “renewed". Churchill might have approved of this idealized depiction of iconography, but Margaret is a harsher critic.

She is also a lonely girl. Played with an effervescent uncertainty and self-protecting bitterness by the stunning Vanessa Kirby, Margaret is a woman wanting love and—despite her drily voiced disdain—conventional happiness. This episode, directed again by Caron, approaches that all-powerful yearning for cliché via a heady take on romantic-comedy tropes, frequently even leaning on the works of the writer Richard Curtis: Meetings and conversations take place at various wedding parties, like in Four Weddings And A Funeral, and some scenes requiring an incredibly famous woman to hobnob outside her circle do borrow from Notting Hill. Princess Margaret is arching her immaculate eyebrow at those-too-cool-to-get-up-and-greet-her when she finds her Manic Photographer Dream Boy.

Antony Armstrong-Jones, who insists on being called Tony, is played by Matthew Goode as the rake to end all rakes, a photographer so damnably cool that he can’t often be bothered to look through his camera while taking a picture. He stares, instead, at the subject before forcing his intrusive personality upon her. Margaret finds herself thrilled even as she can see through his act—she chastises him for a routine she calls “too practised, too well-oiled"—while he keeps upping the ante. To her, this ridiculous man, one who authoritatively slides her dress off her shoulders or makes a show of appreciating her posterior while she looks at him in the mirror, is what she herself wants to be: the ultimate provocateur.

Goode and Kirby have terrific chemistry. He conjures up a sort of slithery but undeniable charm as he advances on her, while we visibly witness Kirby—who has the most icy accent on the show—melt under his spell. Like Claire Foy, who plays Elizabeth, Kirby speaks in an unnatural accent, hardening every painstakingly picked word but never quite managing to say the word “family" without unease, as if it hesitates on her lips. While these two single folk turn up the wick, we see wretched marriages everywhere: Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is cuckolded and miserable while the growing rift between Elizabeth and Philip is highlighted by a dull dinner following which the two climb separate staircases on the way to their vast bedchamber.

This episode culminates in an infamous photograph Armstrong-Jones had taken of the princess—one that, according to fact, was snapped much later into their relationship—but one that Morgan wisely turned into an early flirtation gambit. The first glimpse is revealed with a tray of newspapers being rushed through Buckingham Palace, all folded above the mouth, showing us a set of lips stacked on top of one another, invitingly open and, because of the way they are folded, protruding with an almost obscene lusciousness. It is a remarkable moment and one that, given the show’s early stuffiness, feels genuinely shocking.

Beryl is a swinging, vibrant episode but, for a moment early on, I felt it had stumbled rather jarringly. Princess Margaret, her mascara streaked by tears and whisky, puts on a song and dances in her bedroom by herself. It is a miserable sight, even if the song is a top one—Angel Eyes, sung by Ella Fitzgerald—but it feels unearned and too simplistically over the top, especially for this frequently bloviating show. Later in the episode, however, we again see her drink and dance solo—this time in triumphant, aroused celebration, with The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You—and it is clear that this princess truly does have a rhythm all her own. God save the Queen’s sister’s taste in music.

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