Some days, I find myself questioning the value of my Netflix subscription. Though not terribly expensive, the monthly cost of the service has gone up recently (I got my email notification a couple of weeks ago). As Netflix works to develop more and more of their own content, their catalog of video for which they need to pay licensing fees has shrunk. Our family finds itself going back to buying DVD sets for those TV shows that, a couple of years ago, you could find on the market leading streaming video service.
Then I watch a Netflix original series like The Crown. Though I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I didn’t know I needed a show about the modern day British royals until I watched The Crown on Netflix. The long span of the rule of Queen Elizabeth during some turbulent and transformative years means that the show has a lot of interesting material with which to work. As good as the subject matter is, though, the show wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as it is without the amazing performances from the principals.
Claire Foy, who I had only previously seen play a pretty unlikeable Ann Boleyn in Wolf Hall, captures the reigning queen with both sympathy and vigor. Foy’s eyes could tell a series full of stories by themselves alone, and it’s in those eyes that viewers can find the uncanny ability to humanize a British monarch. If you weren’t an admirer of the queen before watching the show, you’ll find it hard to withhold admiration after you’re gone through the series. Foy’s Elizabeth comes across as a woman who has had enormous responsibilities that she never would have wished for thrust upon her. She struggles with an overpowering Prime Minister, feeling undereducated in the presence of other government officials, fears of infidelity, Christian forgiveness, family relationships gone sour and stinging personal criticism from journalists. Throughout it all, Elizabeth is vulnerable but resolute.
Matt Smith is a great fit in the role of Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband and the Duke of Edinburgh. He plays the locker room, towel-snapping, man’s man aspect of Philip’s personality with aplomb. He’s also funny in a cynical kind of way and his steadiness even when you think he’s going to go astray makes him an endearing character.
Vanessa Kirby is also a standout, chewing through the plush royal furniture as Princess Margaret with an intensity that suggests she knows she’s running out of time. It’s almost as if Kirby is trying to make her mark before turning into Helena Bonham Carter at the stroke of midnight.
The twentieth century is an interesting time for the British monarchy. It’s made clear during the course of events depicted in the show that the royals have no official ability to influence the British government. Instead, the queen must use her powers of indirect influence to shape events in the kingdom. This is never more apparent or more satisfying than when a succession of prime ministers are summoned to meet with her. Some of my favorite moments from both the first and the second season of the show are when Elizabeth meets with John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden and Anton Lesser as Harold MacMillan. Her quiet but firm wisdom and the implied power of her crown have a certain effect on these ambitious men that’s humbling and instructive. It’s simply a joy to watch.