Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"The Crown," Year One

Billed as the most expensive series to date from Netflix, and created by Peter Morgan, "The Crown" is a prestige project of considerable ambition.  Its first ten episodes chronicle the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), from the transition of power from her father, King George VI (Jared Harris), up through the events of 1955.  Impeccably written and cast, with very high end production values, this may be the best historical drama series I've seen to date.

Initially it's a little strange to see the familiar British royals playing out historical events like episodes of "The West Wing," since many of these people are still alive and well.  However, the events of the series take place over sixty years in the past at the time of writing, predating the "Mad Men" era.  They are absolutely fair game for dramatization.  Also Peter Morgan, responsible for "The Queen" and other, more recent looks at British history, is clearly very comfortable with the material.  He doesn't hesitate to dig into the personal lives of the royal family, members of the government, and those in their orbits.  Much of the series is concerned with figures like Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) struggling to reconcile their personal needs with the demands of life as a royal in the public eye.  

The two main figures that "The Crown" is concerned with, however, are Queen Elizabeth II and her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).  Both performances are fantastic, and the series sees them weather one challenge after another.  Elizabeth is newly ascendant, learning the limits of her role as queen and how to wield the power of her new station.  Even the smallest deviations from expectation can be a political minefield, and she has several difficult personal relationships to manage.  Churchill is inevitably facing the end of a long and storied career, but isn't finished yet.  Both are constantly battling for the respect of others, and their scenes together are often a highlight.  They come across as such appealing, interesting people, and their dilemmas are so absorbing, I frequently had to resist turning to Wikipedia to read up on what really happened during the period, and spoiling future episodes.   

I really appreciate the complexity and the nuance of the show's writing, which presents each new historical incident with considerable detail and thoughtfulness.  Smaller stories, like Queen Elizabeth choosing a new secretary and Churchill being obliged to sit for a portrait, turn out to be very revealing and insightful.  There are various dramatic inventions, of course, but most of these serve to provide context to how larger events are playing out, or to explore different aspects of the characters.  Hanging over much of the series, for instance, is the abdication of Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), which continues to make waves during Elizabeth's reign.  He has a fantastic scene during the coronation episode where he provides color commentary to a roomful of guests as they watch the televised proceedings.

From what I'd heard about "The Crown," I'd thought that it would take place much earlier, likely during WWII before Elizabeth became queen.  However, the series is exciting enough that I didn't miss the warfare one bit.  The series is not going to be of much interest to those viewers who aren't receptive to a good political drama, but I found that Morgan and his crew found plenty of ways to make the era and all these historical figures really come alive and engage the audience.  The production really spared no expense, full of eye-catching historical recreations and gorgeous costuming.  Claire Foy seems to be wearing another stunning outfit in every scene.  Stephen Daldry directed the first two episodes, and they're the best thing he's done in years.           

I'm looking forward to future seasons of "The Crown," though I suspect that there's little chance that they'll live up to the first one.  Lithgow's Churchill will almost certainly have a diminished role, and I expect we'll see even less of Harris and some of the other high-profile actors.  Still, Peter Morgan has proven he's able to mine plenty of excellent drama from any stretch of history, and if Queen Elizabeth II has anything, it's plenty of history.  

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