It’s never easy to make an audience feel sympathetic for royalty, even more so for the most influential royal family in the world. Yet Peter Morgan’s Netflix series, “The Crown,” accomplishes just that, combining grandiose production and brilliant acting to tell a historical story about a woman who has seen it all.
"The Crown”’s second season covers a decade in the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy, “Breathe”), picking up where season one ended with the resignation of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, “Trial and Error”) and the bubbling tension in Egypt that eventually became the Suez Canal Crisis. On a domestic scale, the Queen deals with troubles in her marriage with Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), who feels more and more alienated and frustrated with life under the shadow of his wife and the Palace as a whole.
One of the concerns I had following the conclusion of season one was how the show would replace the gap left by Lithgow’s Churchill, a performance that was universally acclaimed and provided season one’s best moments. I quickly found that the task was taken on by the two leads, Foy and Smith. Foy, the star of the season, will be replaced by Olivia Colman (who will play an older Elizabeth) for the following two. But in this season, the masterclass performances inject life, pain, humiliation, and frustration into two people who are constantly required to provide a smiling, reassuring face to the kingdom no matter how much turmoil is in their personal lives. Foy’s acting in particular portrays just how much pressure she faces on a daily basis, acting as a figurehead of an institution that is increasingly seen as outdated and archaic. She is arguably the most “powerful” woman in the world, yet she rarely, if ever gets the opportunity to use her own judgment or speak her own mind.
Elizabeth deals with a host of men who constantly make her life harder every step of the way. The new Prime Minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam, “The Man Who Knew Infinity”) is a man who lusted for the job throughout all of his political career. He is crushed by the pressure that comes along with it, made worse by a series of bad decisions in the Suez Crisis that plunge the country into crisis. On the other hand, her husband feels infantilized by palace mainstays, and as she correctly assesses, loses a sense of purpose in life. At times, he does seem like a petulant child, but while he is sailing around the world in his five-month tour of the commonwealth, Smith also makes him seem that he is truly an adventurous, free spirit who feels imprisoned by palace life.
Throughout all the trials that plague her throughout the season, Elizabeth remains outwardly calm and dignified. When we are reminded of the others who could have been in her position, such as her sister Margaret and her uncle Edward, she seems easily the best person to maintain the respect of the monarchy in turbulent times. Her husband inadvertently attracts scandal due to rumors of infidelity, and at the very beginning of the season, she reminds him that unlike every couple in the country, they have to stick it out.
Alongside the marvelous acting is a faithful depiction of England in the 1950s, bolstered by a massive budget in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, making the show the most expensive Netflix has ever made. There is attention to detail at every turn, from the dresses that transform Elizabeth from woman to goddess to the unique, rather posh accents of the royal family, one that is disappearing in modern times. There is a sense of contrast between the country in the 1950s, where even domestic abuse wouldn’t be a valid reason to divorce a spouse and a king was forced to abdicate to marry, to one where the prince is marrying a divorced, biracial American.
Although some of the most interesting moments in the show are those of political intrigue, the main subject is the Queen, now the longest-serving monarch in the world. Peter Morgan beautifully tells the story of a young woman who is thrust into a position she would rather never have, yet one who somehow maintains the dignity of the royal family in some of its most turbulent years.