Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Crown: A Review

My Netflix subscription this year was a good investment if I had only watched one series:  The Crown.  Although I have viewed several of the streaming service’s original series,  this is the best so far.

The series plans to depict the life of Queen Elizabeth II.   The first season begins with her wedding in 1947 and goes through the first years of her reign up to 1955.  Although this all happened within my lifetime, I would have to call it historical drama.  Visually extravagant with meticulous attention to period costumes and furnishings, the series rarely makes a misstep. 

The series functions on two levels—family drama and politics.  On one level, we have the soap opera of family relationships impacted by both royal privilege and responsibility.  The other level is the political and historical realities of the period.  For example, in “Gloriana” (episode 10), Prime minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is dealing with a foreign policy crisis in Egypt while the Queen (Claire Foy) is more interested in dealing with her sister’s desire to marry a divorced man, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles).

With a biopic of this type, there is certainly a great deal of speculation and recreated conversations since who knows what goes on behind closed doors?  I am sure that there are some historical inaccuracies, but the drama is real and often rather subtle. 

Two episodes in particular challenged my thinking at a theological level.  Those of us in the former American colonies tend to make light of the “divine right of kings,” but “Smoke and Mirrors” (episode 5) which deals with Elizabeth’s coronation, was especially moving for me.  When the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed the Queen’s head, hands and breast (rather awkwardly), I was reminded that the British monarch is not only the secular sovereign but the defender of the faith, the head of the Church of England.  He or she has assumed a holy order.  The monarch’s vocation is a gift from God.  What if each of us considered our vocation as a divine gift from God?  What difference would it make in our daily lives and the way we pursue our vocations?

Another episode focuses on Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).  The Prime Minister is a central figure through most of the first season.  In “Assassins” (episode 9), Churchill is to be honored on his 80th birthday with a portrait by Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane), a modernist artist strongly influenced by both nature and spirituality.  Churchill’s hatred of the portrait is a historical fact.  The episode infers that he ordered it burned, but some sources say that Lady Churchill (Harriet Walter) took the initiative to destroy the portrait.  The conflict between the artist and the subject surfaces both unresolved grief and the inability to deal with one’s own mortality.  Lithgow’s Churchill is both vulnerable and vindictive, and each of us can identify with the very human struggle of making sense of the death of loved ones and of our own impending deaths.  This is a faith question.  Rarely does an entertainment vehicle touch on such concerns.

For the most part, the parts are well cast and choosing actors to play real persons, many of whom are still living, is not easy. Elizabeth (Claire Foy) has the difficult task of living into the role of the English monarch—both human and symbol.  Foy must be both ingénue and sovereign.  She is excellent in this ambiguous role.

John Lithgow as Churchill is fabulous.  Much has been written about Churchill, both honoring and critiquing the politician and wartime leader, but he is certainly one of the most pivotal figures of the 20th century. Lithgow captures the bulldog tenacity as well as the declining facilities of the man in his later years.

In early episodes and in flashbacks, Jared Harris is wonderful as King George VI, the monarch with a stutter who had the office thrust upon him when his brother King Edward VII (Alex Jennings) abdicated the throne “for the women he loved.” Harris depicts George as a reluctant ruler with a sometimes crude streak who gives his all for family and country. 

Other performances are a bit uneven but this may have more to do with the script than the actors.  There often seems to be a tendency to write caricatures rather than fully embodied people.  Alex Jennings plays Edward, Duke of Windsor.   Although he protests that he is fine with his decision to give up the throne for Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams), we are never sure he believes his choice was for the best. 

Matt Smith (who played one of the incarnations of Dr. Who) does not seem to have a firm grasp on his role as Prince Phillip.  He comes across as sulky and juvenile, so it is hard to truly care about his character.

Vanessa Kirby also has a difficult task in portraying Princess Margaret, the royal sister who wants to marry the divorced Peter Townsend (Ben Miles).   Again, it is difficult to understand a person who seems to think only of herself and is depicted in the extremes of either pouting or partying.  Miles, on other hand, shows us a man who is both passionate and patriotic, willing to make difficult choices in the public spotlight.

The Crown is a morality play, one based on real people.  Even if we are not royals, we face significant choices related to responsibility, relationships, and freedom.  These are people just like us, only different.  The bottom line is that The Crown is about people.

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