When it comes to period dramas, we fans are used to being patient. Outnumbered by superhero movies, television quiz shows and Channel 4 ‘documentaries’, we might be lucky enough to get a couple of period drama films or a few episodes per year. Never before have we been able to actually do that coveted Netflix binge with our favourite genre, but thanks to The Crown, bonfire night became less about fireworks than it did about hunkering down on the sofa with a cup of tea and a blanket.
The Crown focuses on the life of Queen Elizabeth II and is the most expensive original production by Netflix to date, highly promoted with the fanfare usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. Even better, we’ve been given ten sumptuous hour-long episodes all at once, with the promise of around five more seasons to bring us from the 1950s all the way up to the present day.
It’s got a predictably starry British cast, poaching the best of the BBC’s pool of beloved actors along the way. The perennially underrated Claire Foy stars as the monarch, injecting a wide-eyed vulnerability to the young woman about to inherit the country. Her husband Prince Philip is played by Matt Smith, who takes some of that charm and conflict that we can imagine from a younger Duke of Edinburgh, in between his strong will and complete lack of vocal filters.
They’re supported by other period drama favourites, including Greg Wise (1995 Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby) as Philip’s uncle and Victoria Hamilton (too many period dramas to count!) as the Queen Mother. However, the real star turn in this initial episode comes from Jared Harris as King George VI. The king’s fate is obvious to anyone with a basic grasp of common sense but Harris is completely heartbreaking as a man whose power status still leaves even him in the dark about his own illness. He’ll be a loss to the cast and the plot in the episodes ahead.
As to the rest of the episode, everything is beautifully directed with precision and the sets are suitably stunning. This series has been written by Peter Morgan, whose other notable works inspired by history include The Queen and Frost/Nixon. So far he has a tricky job on his hands, the reticence of the still living royals meaning that he’s had to rely on second hand sources and a bit of imagination.
It’s because of this perhaps that Claire Foy’s Elizabeth, though vulnerable and innocent, still comes across as quite enigmatic in her choices and emotions. Like the real life figure, this Queen is still viewed behind the mask of duty that has kept her simultaneously a distant, and yet familiar, figure to the world. Smith’s Philip on the other hand, has been given an intriguing role already as a protector, challenger and wry outsider.
It’s an exciting premiere, not paced too slowly but acting as a strong set-up that is definitely worth a watch. Although there may be some controversy about making a huge series about people still living, as well as inevitable debate over historical accuracy, The Crown doesn’t take its subject matter lightly and there’s plenty to look forward to.