“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 seems an apt starting point for this review. Not only does this quote demonstrate the symbolic and literal weight that rests upon the head of Queen Elizabeth II, but it also resembles the apprehension amongst Netflix executives ahead of release of The Crown. Following the pop culture success of recent shows like Stranger Things, Netflix are now acutely aware that original content is the provider’s greatest selling point.
Regardless of this, one can not diminish the fact that Netflix’s investment into The Crown is still a high risk gamble. With a budget of £100 million — a figure more associated with that of a tent pole summer blockbuster — The Crown represents a landmark moment in the shift towards TV streaming.
This same poignancy in moments is also poetically the main thematic core of the show, as the conceit of The Crown is to shed light and provide insight into the key touchstones at the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The viewer watches as a young Elizabeth inherits the throne in an untimely manner and must come to grips with the complexities of her new role. She soon learns the harsh reality that her responsibilities as Queen must always come first, above her natural duties as a mother and as a wife.
Inevitably this leads to growing conflicts amongst family members, which allows the show to humanise the Royal family, in order to make them as relatable as possible. At first it may seem far-fetched to seek a connection between the viewer and a Sovereign, but The Crown truly excels in accentuating the personal relations between these immortal figures.
This attempt to instil a deep sense of humanity is most evident in King George VI, played by Jared Harris, who gives a jewel of a performance. He presents a man riddled with pride, but also love for his family and country. His imprint and early guidance for Elizabeth have a profound and long lasting impact on her Monarchy which imbue the early episodes with a beating heart.
Elizabeth herself, played by a fresh faced Claire Foy, does her best to convey the growing strength of a woman constantly questioned and moulded by others. And Matt Smith gives his best work post Doctor Who as the perennially reluctant Prince Philip. On the disappointing end of the scale however, John Lithgow never fully convinces as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The seasoned American actor always seemed a peculiar choice for the role and despite the best efforts of the hair and make-up team, it is impossible to see beyond the cosmetics.
With the lavish sets, opulent dresses and gorgeous cinematography it is clear the costly budget has been put to effective use. Historic sites like Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace seem entirely authentic. The attention to detail by the costume and production designers allow for an immersive fly on the wall experience of post-war Britain.
The show is also exquisitely well written by its creator Peter Morgan, who has previous experience in bringing past events to life, being the writer of The Queen. Morgan manages to elicit unexpected drama from matters of royal etiquette and courtly protocol. Nevertheless there are intimate moments of The Crown which are more fascinating on their own than the series as a whole. As a result the show does suffer from pacing issues and can test the engagement of its audience. Ultimately this first series may not be the crowning achievement Netflix were aspiring for, but it comes awfully close to ruling them all.
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