TV SERIES by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
The personal subsumed: The Crown
, February 25, 2017
The Crown is a sumptuous historical drama that has as its nominal subject Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms.
Her Majesty is indeed the centrepoint of the series, around which its stories turn, but it is fair to say that its real subject is the Crown itself: that is to say, government, and its many faces and many impacts. It uses the story of Elizabeth Windsor, and her family and counselors, to explore politics and statesmanship, innovation and tradition, integrity and individuality, and does so in such a way that it sharply expresses the conflict that can exist therein, and without resorting to glib conclusions about how these conflicts should be resolved.
The series opens with His Majesty, King George VI (Jared Harris), hacking up blood into a toilet bowl as he prepares to make his soon to be son-in-law Philip (Matt Smith) the Duke of Edinburgh. The man who is to become the consort of the heir to the throne is renouncing his titles and names to do so, knowing full well that when the time comes he will have to give up everything else he’s worked for – his military career and independence – that he might properly serve as Consort to the Queen. But he is happy to do so because it is for the woman he loves.
That woman is Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy), the eldest daughter of George VI and his wife Elizabeth (Victoria Hamilton). The Princess is a strong-willed young woman, very much in love with Philip, but also determined to do her duty, a duty drilled into her by her parents, her teachers and especially her formidable grandmother Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), still aghast at the abdication of her son Edward, Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams).
As Philip waits at the altar for his bride, the aged Sir Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and his wife Clementine (Harriet Walter) make their way into the Cathedral – with perfect timing – to a rapturous response from the crowd, leading Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, aka Bobbety (Clive Francis) to remark to Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) about how Churchill still thinks he’s “Father to the Nation”, and on the campaign trail. Churchill lost the recent general election to Labour leader Clement Attlee (Simon Chandler), who is clearly none too pleased by Churchill’s continued popularity and aptitude for dramatic gestures.
While the vows are being made, Elizabeth’s maid of honour, her sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), makes eyes at the war hero and fighter ace, Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), equerry to her father the King.
Thus the stage is set for The Crown and the characters and themes introduced. The series has been lavishly produced by Netflix at a reported cost of £100,000,000 ($A163,000,000). Its musical theme is composed by Hans Zimmer – better known for such blockbusters as Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2011) – while the main composer is Rupert Gregson-Williams, who wrote the score for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
The show is created and written by Peter Morgan, who wrote the acclaimed films The Queen (2006), about the aftermath of the death of Diana, formerly Princess of Wales; and Frost/Nixon (2008), about David Frost’s legendary interview of Richard Nixon after Nixon resigned. Despite the extensive research conducted, Buckingham Palace apparently had no input to the series.
The first series focuses on the time from the Royal Wedding to just before the Suez Crisis, taking in such things as the Coronation, the Great Smog of 1952 and the romance between Princess Margaret and the Group Captain; while also interspersing the dramas of Edward VIII’s abdication. The series has been criticised for historical inaccuracies, but it is less an exercise in history and more a meditation on power and those who wield it.
The principal theme is the conflict between the personal and the professional – with the profession in this case being that of leadership, specifically royalty, and how such a profession means the complete subsuming of the person into the role. Those who wear the crown cease to be individuals, and instead become the embodiment of the nation. Their dedication to duty must overwhelm their independence, despite the tensions this sparks within them, and in their relationships with others.
This means that much of the drama of The Crown concerns “little” things like names, living arrangements and health troubles, but it shows that such “little” things are truly of great importance, for they are the foundation on which everything else is built.
Ultimately, the series does not resolve the conflict at its heart, instead suggesting that it cannot be resolved, only acknowledged and lived.
(Viewer discretion is advised, as there is brief intense coarse language and adult themes throughout.)
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).