Many years ago, I attended a lecture hosted by a Labour politician. Unprompted, he said that he wanted the monarchy abolished for the Royals’ sake. Imagine, he stated, having your first kiss caught on camera. Imagine, he continued, your entire life being the subject of press attention. Netflix’s series “The Crown” illustrates another danger: as a Royal, your life may be dramatized, filmed, and streamed to every part of the planet.
“The Crown” remains the definitive drama about the Royal Family. We have Season 4 this year thanks to a stroke of luck: the producers decided to film Seasons 3 and 4 together. They could not know it, but they neatly avoided the problems that the coronavirus would have created. Seasons 5 and 6 will be filmed next year.
This was the last turn of the present cast before they are changed again for older counterparts. Season 4 covers the 1980’s: it includes the reign of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the marriage of Charles and Diana, and the Falklands War. We are compelled to look at the 1980’s without the blinding haze of nostalgia: we are shown mass unemployment, attacks by the IRA, and political turmoil.
Olivia Colman has a unique ability to “be” the Queen without looking that much like her: the hairstyles and clothes are spot on, but the performance is more than a fashion statement. She seems to have captured the mannerisms, the bearing, the stiff devotion to duty. She has ingested the Queen’s essence.
Gillian Anderson provides what may be the best-ever on-screen portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. It was never just a matter of replicating Thatcher’s voice, which she does well; she seems to have gotten into Mrs. Thatcher’s head and more intriguingly, into her soul. When questioned by the Queen about her relationship to her father, Anderson’s Thatcher speaks with sincerity and force about how they worked together. Anderson’s Thatcher is also a human being. She has a loving, even symbiotic, relationship with her husband, and dotes on her son. Yet, she is also portrayed as a hard-headed revolutionary: she does not connect at all to the odd rituals of the Royal Family, nor to Scotland as a country. Anderson’s Thatcher clearly wants to burn everything to the ground and replace it with something more “useful”.
Josh O’Connor is convincing as Prince Charles: he satisfyingly portrays Charles’ awkwardness, selfishness, and diffidence, plus his endless yearning to be the centre of attention. It is not easy for an actor to step into a role that is eminently unlikable yet has moments of genuine humanity. O’Connor achieves this.
However, the real star of this series is Emma Corrin as Princess Diana. She not only looks like her but seems to have captured every stage of Diana’s evolution as a public and private person. She starts off as an awkward, shy girl. She progressively grows in confidence and power, as she realises how well she connects with people. Ms. Corrin puts in the tour de force performance of the series when she tells off one of Charles’ courtiers about her need to care for young Prince William. She portrays bulimia convincingly: the most difficult scenes to watch feature her suffering through it during times of stress. During these parts, she is invariably alone in a bathroom, reduced to sitting on the floor. Fortunately, the series creators provide warnings and information for those similarly afflicted.
Ms. Corrin movingly replicates what may very well have been Princess Diana’s finest hour, when she embraced a patient suffering from AIDS; this simple gesture broke a widespread stigma. One can’t help but feel that it’s a shame that Ms. Corrin will be replaced in Series 5; it’s difficult to believe that anyone else could do the job so well.
Special mention must also go to Tom Brooke who plays Michael Fagan, an intruder who broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982 and forced his way into the Queen’s bedroom. He is the “everyman” in this series, a member of the British public that the Royals never see: unemployed, divorced, in despair. “The Crown” shows us the prelude to his rash act: his depressing existence in a run-down council flat, his attempts to find work, and his suffering through the indignities proffered by a series of bureaucrats. It’s unlikely we will ever know what Fagan and the Queen actually said to each other, if much at all. However, the idea that the Queen glimpsed what her country is really like via that encounter is compelling.
All in all, the series was satisfying. Ardent Royalists will hate it, as it indicates the institution of monarchy leads to distorted lives led by distorted people. But perhaps the rest of us needed that reminder.