Outstanding performances and a stupendous script make Netflix’s royal drama worth slowly savoring.
After viewing all 10 first season episodes of “The Crown” in two days, most of them in one sitting, I can honestly report that it’s the least bingeable new Netflix series in recent memory. That’s not a slight, mind you, because it’s also one of the streaming service’s most thoughtful offerings yet, making it worthy of slower digestion.
Even the most ravenous viewing appetites can benefit from a meatier, complex chew now and then. And season 1 of “The Crown,” which debuts on Friday, is certainly that. Researched for two and a half years before creator Peter Morgan began writing its scripts, this drama is executed with care that’s evident in every scene.
Morgan has no fear when it comes to constructing dialogue that alternately caresses the ear and shreds the heart. As he demonstrated in his script for the Oscar-winning film “The Queen” that he’s skilled at making Queen Elizabeth II live and breathe for the audience, though it’s Claire Foy’s graceful, nuanced performance that grants her warmth and humanity.
Foy has delivered captivating performances in critically acclaimed titles such as 2015’s “Wolf Hall” and “Little Dorrit” in 2008. But at the center of “The Crown,” the actress does some of her finest work to date by quietly conveying the burden of being an object to the public while attempting to remain a person in her private moments. Living with this sense of duality is the task the real Queen Elizabeth II has undertaken for more than six decades. But the average person can at last understand the weight of that challenge thanks to Foy’s portrayal, amply supported by equally vibrant performances from rest of this drama’s extraordinary cast.
In “The Crown” both Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (Dame Eileen Atkins) and the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) blame the weight of the monarchy for shortening the life of Elizabeth’s father King George VI (Jared Harris, at his soul-stirring best)
In 1947, when the story begins, King George is in poor health but still on the throne, and Elizabeth is on the verge of marrying Philip Mountbatten (Matt Smith), a noble whose lower social station makes him a questionable match. Elizabeth has several years to enjoy the relatively luxurious role of new wife, mother, daughter and sister before her father’s death in 1952, marking her ascension to the throne at age 25.
From that moment onward, Foy’s queen, Elizabeth Regina, must be the paragon of dignity and stoicism, even as the era of television and the explosion of celebrity come of age around her and her family. Foy captures the innocence and optimism of Elizabeth Mountbatten — daughter, sister and wife — only to sublimate those qualities whenever she presides over state matters or appears in public as Queen Elizabeth II. Employing the slightest shift in emotional affect, sometimes within the space of a sentence or two, the actress robustly defines the difference between the private woman and the queen, never letting viewers forget the young ruler’s discomfort with the divide between the two identities.
Young Queen Elizabeth is constantly reminded that her subjects only want the monarch, an object. To reveal any sense of individuality is to shatter the spell that gives the title its sway over commoners; thus, she learns to transform herself into an enigma. And she also receives a crash course in navigating a Parliament that doubts her, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) at a time when his health and his political influence are in decline. The lessons she learns about what’s entailed with being part of the ruling family and its restrictions are palpably brutal — not only for her but for her sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby).