The Crown, Netflix’s latest original series, appears ill-suited for that peculiar digital entertainment phenomenon called “binge-watching.” It is not so much its pace as the narrative heft which forces the viewer to pause and reflect after each episode. In reality, The Crown moves rapidly, chronologically speaking.
A story of Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage and the circumstances leading up to her coronation until today, the series opens up with an unsettling scene. The King George VI coughs up blood and stares grimly at the blood-speckled toilet bowl in Buckingham Palace. The occasion is solemn. Prince Philip of Denmark and Greece is renouncing all his foreign titles and nationalities to be able to marry Princess Elizabeth. He becomes the Duke of Edinburgh.
Barring this little sanguineness, everything ahead in The Crown is absolutely gorgeous. It does complete justice to its immoderate budget. The visual beauty is not just skin-deep. The attention to minute details is as exquisite. The props, locations, costumes – lavishness defines everything in The Crown. As far as style goes, The Crown is easily one of the most beautiful period dramas ever made. But what about substance?
Elizabeth and Philip marry, but the union is not altogether a happy one, for King George VI dies of cancer soon after, those blood droplets being an early sign of a malignant tumour, leaving a young and confused Elizabeth on the throne. Philip, miffed at losing his work in the Royal Navy and having to play second fiddle as consort to the Queen (which involves kneeling before her, among other things), grows distant.
The Queen struggles to grapple with her floundering relationship with Philip and her duties as a monarch. Adding to her difficulties is her younger sister who wants to marry a commoner. Elizabeth is sympathetic, but her cabinet isn’t, foremost of whom is the aging Prime minister Winston Churchill, played superbly by John Lithgow as a cantankerous but lovable old-timer desperately clinging to power on the basis of him being a war-hero.
A well-made period-drama should be like sailing vicariously through time. The creator Peter Morgan paints an incredibly vivid picture of mid-20th century London, including the Great Smog of 1952, and anti-British sentiment in the Commonwealth. All of it, however, is firmly in the background. The biggest focus of The Crown is on its characters and how the aforementioned crises affect them.
Even if they weren’t royal, The Crown would have been gripping soap about an ordinary family, albeit stripped of opulence. As it is, Netflix’s money (£100m reportedly) has paid rich dividends. A warts-and-all portrayal, but the royals are unlikely to mind. There is a sensitivity here which humanises them in a sympathetic if not reverent manner, making them look just like commoners with titles and wealth: vulnerable and flawed.