Keeping Up with the Windsors: Family Drama
Created and written by Peter Martin
Left Bank Films, distributed by Netflix
There’s a subtle but unmistakable feeling that gradually accumulates if you spend any significant amount of time in Kensington Palace. It’s present in the public areas, borne in on the senses by the opulence all around, but it intensifies in the more private areas of the palace, the staff rooms and offices, the apartments and sitting rooms, the libraries and even the lavatories. It’s not simply grandeur, although all the royal residences of the House of Windsor have that in great heaps. Rather, in those more intimate settings, it’s the feeling of being surrounded by money that’s consciously trying to be unobtrusive. Everything moves and works with the muscular indifference that comes from being the very best possible example of whatever thing it happens to be. Every lamp, every carpet, every door handle, every picture frame, every drapery-cord … every single object in those quiet personal rooms breathes with the steady confidence of being noiselessly maintained in perfection. Once you’ve been there for a while, you begin to be certain that this is what the royal residences of the pharaohs must have felt like just slightly behind the scenes: a smooth, rich perfection of detail, a living, working mausoleum.
The comparison is of course less fanciful in this case than it would be in virtually any other. Thanks to an adroit re-christening in the days of the First World War, the House of Windsor so named is only a scant 100 years old. But the line itself in its various roots and branches reaches back for centuries: the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the great great grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, and Queen Victoria was a descendant of King Charles II, whose grandmother was Mary Queen of Scots, whose grandmother was the sister of King Henry VIII, and so forth more or less all the way back to the goddess Venus. Fires and floods have had their usual way with buildings and topography in London and the English countryside, but nevertheless, the history, the tradition, and the money that form the very atmosphere of Kensington Palace are all millennially rooted, old enough to be well past caring about gaudy flash. Inhaling that atmosphere, you feel at once relaxed and on edge.
Most people are perhaps not lucky enough to have spent non-tourist leisure time in the quieter private precincts of a royal residence, but now, thanks to the in-every-house wonders of Netflix, something very closely approximating that feeling can be had by all. The Crown, a Left Bank Films 10-part dramatic series, premiered in early November on the ubiquitous entertainment channel. It’s rumored to be the most expensive small-screen production ever filmed, with a budget of £100 million. The series was created by Peter Morgan, the writer who also gave us the stage play The Audience and the grand 2006 movie The Queen, both portraying Queen Elizabeth II in the grey-haired purse-clutching fullness of her royal authority.
The Audience cost roughly £1 million to stage; The Queen cost roughly £10 million; by way of ballpark US comparison, the epic war drama Patton, which featured full-scale recreated tank battles in the desert, cost $12 million. 2009’s reboot Star Trek, which imagined starship battles and the destruction of planets, cost $150 million.
Every single moment of The Crown exudes that money, in ways uncannily similar to those on evidence in the residences of the actual flesh-and-blood Windsors: everything is polished, everything is smooth, every thing is calmly and quietly the very best example of whatever thing it happens to be. The locations – South Africa and throughout London and the beautiful countryside of Kent – sprawl in the backgrounds, the establishing shots are mini- movies of plush breadth, and the interiors, the marble staircases and art-filled private chambers, feel like destinations rather than stage sets: while you’re watching them, the mere thought that you could turn your head and see cameras and studio lights feels a bit sacrilegious. We’re a long, long way from the boxy sound-echoes and plywood sets of the BBC’s I, Claudius (£60,000).
Peter Morgan and Left Bank Films and Netflix no doubt considered a significant portion of that £l00 million as not so much payment but down payment; filming on a second set of episodes is reported to be already underway, and still more season are likely to follow after that. Certainly they’d have a walloping long story to tell. In 2016 Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria as the country’s longest-serving monarch. Her reign has seen the transformation of her country from world-power empire to third-most-influential member of the European Union, and she’s imperturbably ushered the monarchy into an era that looks upon the promises and duties she holds sacred as just so many tinny embarrassments from days of yore. In poll after poll, 21st century Londoners say they can’t imagine the monarchy ending as long as the Queen is alive – and can’t imagine it continuing after her death.
So The Crown is a period piece in more ways than one, and perhaps this accounts for the uncanny way in which it feels both nostalgic and valedictory. Cinematographers Adriano Goldman and Ole Bratt Birkeland consistently opt for muted, suffusing light; interiors tend to be brownish and dim, with characters forever needing to take two steps forward in order to find proper lighting. The contrast with the age’s other expensive British costume drama, Downton Abbey, couldn’t be more obvious: the one seeks to bring light and life to a bygone time, the other invites viewers to watch a series of slightly faded home movies of a time now out of reach.
The Crown begins when young Elizabeth is still only the princess heir to her father King George VI (played as a nervy lung-case by Jared Harris, who neither much looks like nor much acts like the genuine article). She’s happy to marry her cousin, the Greek prince Philip Mountbatten, and she’s willing to go on a tour of the Commonwealth in place of her ailing father, but the full realities of her own impending rule don’t dawn on her until she and Philip (a lantern-jawed Matt Smith, rather outclassed in the acting department by virtually everybody around him), staying in Kenya, get the news of her father’s death back in London. At an often markedly leisurely pace, the series then follows the young new young queen and her prince consort through a series of comparatively minor household flaps: he has trouble adapting to the overwhelming authority of her new role, she’s denied her first pick of private secretary, her younger sister’s love life causes problems, their mother slowly adjusts to widowhood … if it weren’t for the hereditary titles, it would all look like a Barbara Pym novel.
And even with the addition of those hereditary titles, Morgan and his various show runners have striven to dampen the dramatic tempo at almost every turn; wheezy old King George sets the tone early by good-naturedly dying in his sleep (likewise the series aptitude for lovely grace notes: the old equerry who first finds the body pauses for a moment of silent grief before spreading the word). The episodes unfold at a stately pace that feels every bit as anachronistic as the world they’re portraying. Characters almost never simply talk to each other in rooms – instead, they first get to those rooms through acres of hallways and staircases, then they enter those rooms through ornate doorways, then they traverse those rooms to reach each other’s proximity. And then once terse, whittled-down sentiments are exchanged, the whole process happens in reverse. By rights, it all ought to be as boring as lawn croquet in suburban Maryland.
The marvel of The Crown is that it’s never boring, not for a single one of those impeccably-crafted moments. Against all odds, this is entirely riveting television, somehow actually worth all those hundreds of pounds it cost to produce. A big part of this is the scripting, that strangely laconic phrasing that Morgan has by now mastered right down to its finest points. These phrasings aren’t completely actor-proof, of course (Smith, for example, never quite gets all the way through an episode without tromping on a line that would have resonated in the handling of a different actor), nor are they uniform throughout. But the kind of maudlin histrionics that have always tended to afflict dramatic representations of the Windsors – the 1978 ITV mini-series Edward & Mrs Simpson comes immediately to mind – only crop up twice in all ten hours of this first season of The Crown: once when old Queen Mary (the always-reliable Elieen Atkins, here doing her best approximation of phoning it in) perorates to her wide-eyed granddaughter about the magic of the monarchy, and once when the bitter exiled Duke of Windsor, who had been briefly King Edward VIII before abdicating in order to marry the American adventuress Wallis Simpson, perorates to his wide-eyed niece about the magic of the monarchy. The Duke, played with a winningly brittle combination of hauteur and seediness by Alex Jennings, is a specter haunting the whole series, just as he haunted the House of Windsor in real life, and in general Morgan uses him wisely, making him both a living commentary on wrong royal choices and a proud and somewhat pitiful man who’s never 100% certain the most important choice of his life was the right one.
In the terminology of The Crown, the evil of that choice has an oft-repeated name: individuality. As grimly efficient Windsor secretary Tommy Lascelles (played in a single extended funereal note by Pip Torrens, about as far as he can get from his sublimely brainless Bingo Little in the grand old Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster TV series) tells the new Queen at one point, “Individuality in the House of Windsor is not to be encouraged” – it can lead to chaos, to public distrust … to Abdication. The Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton, who needs only one episode to settle into the role) tells Elizabeth at one point that her strongest suit as monarch is her ability to keep her mouth shut, and it’s when Princess Margaret (played with pouty glamor by Vanessa Kirby) does the opposite, joking and joshing with guests while substituting for the Queen at some social events, that she’s given a stern talking-to by octogenarian prime minister Winston Churchill, who sonorously reminds her that the Crown doesn’t, mustn’t, have a personality.
Churchill-in-winter is played by John Lithgow, and it’s a great, hammy performance, full of outbursts and speechifying, the show’s only concession to the operatic potential of its settings. Unlike many interpreters of this particular role (Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech, for instance), Lithgow decides to inhabit it rather than interpret it: he gives us the silhouette hunch, the pettishness, and the curious likability without ever inviting us to question any of it, and it all works perfectly. The delightfully constructed episode “Act of God,” in which a poisonous Great Fog envelops London and sends hundreds of people to the hospital, shows an increasingly exasperated Churchill (“It is the weather,” he keeps growling at ministers who seem to be expecting him to do something about it) at his most charismatic, one canny force of nature against another. And in the penultimate episode of the series, “Assassins,” Lithgow’s portrayal of Churchill’s multi-layered bitterness over an unflattering portrait painted for his 80th birthday is simply stunning, the dramatic high point of the entire production.
Acting as constant counterpoint to this stage-strutting is the centerpiece of The Crown, Claire Foy’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II. Foy’s beautiful face becomes a palimpsest of impression and restraint as each episode presents the Queen with new sets of things to which she must not react. She encounters courtiers who know her new job better than she does, statesmen who have knowledge of the real world she’s scarcely ever encountered, and most of all the will and truculence of her own family – a husband who hates the fact that he can’t be the head of his own household, a mother who’s torn between public duties and a yearning for peaceful retirement (there’s a lovely, touching moment when the Queen Mother is called back into family service just at the moment when she’s begun to find peace at her newly-purchased Castle May), and, in the series’ recurring dramatic hobbyhorse, a sister who wants to marry a divorced person, the very offense that precipitated the Abdication crisis in the previous generation. Foy’s Elizabeth reacts to all of this with an ever-deepening inwardness, and it’s no small acting feat to make ever-deepening inwardness this compelling to watch on the screen. Nearly 40 years ago, Theo Aronson wrote of the young Queen Elizabeth: “What she was determined to uphold – by instinct rather than design – was the dignity, dependability, and respectability of the Crown.” Which is certainly laudable and almost certainly true but which ought to make deadly dull viewing. And for all its sumptuous staging, The Crown would fail utterly if Foy weren’t so uniformly magnetic at its center.
The Crown can occasionally be simplistic and maladroit, particularly on the always-vexed subject of Great Britain’s testy relations with its former empire. The series is happy to paint Prince Philip on an Africa tour as being boorishly tone-deaf to the dignity of the native peoples (the better to have his wife scold him for it), but the series itself can be equally tone-deaf without seeming to know it, particularly in its portrayal of Egypt’s Colonel Nasser as a glowering buffoon. Morgan tweaks the facts to heighten the conflicts between Elizabeth and Margaret, or between Elizabeth and Philip, while curiously tending to soften the conflicts between the Queen and her mother in these early years, and the series’ suggestion that Elizabeth might seek wise counsel via telephone from the Duke of Windsor is fanciful to say the least. It would have been a greater dramatic risk to give us a more human Elizabeth, especially in these early years before the full weight of her duty had settled on her and flattened every topographical feature of a normal life. As it is, we see Foy’s Elizabeth coldly bring her husband to heel, coldly scold her ministers with a plummy “How could you?” and coldly squelch her sister’s happiness, all for the greater good of the family “firm.” It’s hard to imagine investing more multi-episode seasons in such a main character.
But there are possibilities, of course. The backstage influence of Philip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten, for instance, is only hinted at once in these early episodes, and the steadily-growing popularity of the Queen Mother is a thing as yet unknown. The Suez Crisis looms on the horizon for the second series, and there are crises aplenty after that. And there’s Margaret Thatcher. And there’s Princess Diana. It would be something of a pity if a performance as textured as Foy’s were reduced to a dignified backdrop against which charismatic guest-players make star turns, but then, not only does something like that happen in this first season already, but something like that could very much describe the actual reality of being Queen. The Crown is a long and careful study of a smart young woman learning how to suppress every aspect of her own personality – but expensive TV melodramas feed on personalities, and they have to come from somewhere.
In the meantime, the House of Windsor could scarcely have hoped for a more dignified and sympathetic popular portrayal than the one it gets in The Crown. The things it exalts – duty, sacrifice, proportion, understatement – are almost comically out of fashion everywhere in the world as 2016 draws to a close, when loud and gaudy opportunism, that dreaded individuality, is everywhere unbridled. In many ways, the series reflects the immense and quiet affluent confidence of all those royal residences, where things have a settled place and a fixed order and an obvious worth. But in 1992 Windsor Palace burned all day long.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.