Monarchy is fascinating. Its storied history boasts wars, incest, opulence and scandal. Without royalty, much (if not all) of the world, which we presently know, would not exist. Therefore, it is a topic which has interested scholars, filmmakers and writers for centuries. More often than not, however, the stories of royalty told are less modern, and more historical.
Though it is not necessarily modern, Netflix’s latest period drama “The Crown” examines a more recent history of the life of the English royal family. In this series, the relatively secret past of England’s Queen Elizabeth is unearthed. Beginning in 1947 at a pivotal point in her life — the wedding to Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh — it takes viewers on a biographical journey through the Queen’s past. This high-budget foray into historical drama is a new leap for Netflix, but it is, by most accounts, a complete success.
Queen Elizabeth, portrayed by the dynamic and talented Claire Foy (“Wolf Hall”), is undeniably an interesting figure to create a biographical drama around. She has ruled for over 50 years, through both trying and prosperous times. Her legend will be told in history books for years to come. Despite her prominence, however, there is the question of what makes her story so compelling. What about the life of Queen Elizabeth is worth devoting a 10-part series and over $100 million to?
As the pilot episode takes shape, it becomes clear that it’s not the life of Queen Elizabeth which makes her so compelling, but rather the persona. The monarchy, historically, is an institution that does not often give power to women. Yet simply because of her noble birth, Elizabeth was the face of not only England, but all of the countries and regions ruled by the Crown. 1947 was a time when most women were expected to be wives and daughters. Very few were asked to be leaders. That’s what makes Elizabeth so special, and what makes “The Crown” a worthwhile show. It celebrates a strong, powerful woman for her achievements and tells her story.
On the note of power, however, it is clear that though power is what Elizabeth deserves, it is not what she always receives. One of the most interesting points of the pilot episode is during her wedding, when she recites her vows. To Phillip (Matt Smith, “Doctor Who”), she promises “to love and cherish and obey.” The struggle of sharing power is a vital theme throughout the show, specifically in the marriage of Elizabeth and Phillip. How does a Queen obey her husband when an entire country and its commonwealth kingdoms are supposed to obey her?
Therein the first major question of the series is posed. Even though Queen Elizabeth is powerful, is she strong? Will she stand up for herself or comply to societal norms of the time, and bow to the will of her husband? This is a dichotomy which would only face the royal family, and it’s thrilling to experience it with them.
“The Crown” is a show about the transition of a naïve young woman into a refined Queen. It examines what it means to be born into a role where one is always being watched and, more importantly, a role where every action, every reaction and every decision must (or should) reflect the values of the Crown. What makes “The Crown” so powerful is the ability to experience these characters — actual, prominent leaders — as they live in these roles. History can tell us what happened, but it cannot show us how it affected them on a humanistic level. An inside look into the humanity of England’s most composed and dignified family is a treat for viewers, and well worth the watch.