Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter shine in the third season of The Crown, which sees the royal family facing greater public criticism amid unrest in Britain. By Michelle Law.
Despite a steady diet of Disney and fairytales as a child, I’m largely ambivalent towards the monarchy. Being governed by a head of state feels antiquated and removed from 21st-century life, and yet whenever a major royal event comes along – a wedding, a birth – I find myself fascinated by the family and what they represent: ritual, tradition and steadfastness at any cost.
For as long as I’ve been alive, Elizabeth II has been the Queen of England. She has been a monolithic figure attendant to decades of war, climate disasters and leadership spills, the head of the Western world and the literal head on our coins. In my own life, she’s mostly forgotten until some distant relative turns a century old and receives a birthday card from Buckingham Palace in the post. “What about when the Queen turns 100?” I’d ask my mum as a child. “What does she get? Does she write a card to herself?” As it stands, she’s only seven years away from that particular milestone.
The third season of The Crown spans 13 years, taking place from 1964 to 1977. In it, the Queen (played by Olivia Colman, who takes the reins from Claire Foy) cuts a lonely figure. At the beginning of the season, Elizabeth II, now 38, has transformed into the leader with whom many of us are familiar: fortified, cold, seemingly unfeeling, with a war helmet of hair punctuated with some manner of outrageous millinery. Her marriage to Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies, replacing Matt Smith) has now stabilised; she’s settled into the practice of upholding duty above all else and simply wants to get on with the job. Where the first and second seasons of The Crown were about a wife and sister learning to be a monarch, the third is about a monarch relearning what it means to be herself or, indeed, to be human.
At this point in history, the Queen and her government face nationwide unrest following the collapse of Britain’s superpower status. The country is in dangerous debt and seeks a bailout from the reluctant and proud United States president Lyndon B. Johnson. And Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s decision to devalue the pound has caused global humiliation. Domestically, a mining disaster in the village of Aberfan, Wales, has killed 144 people, most of them children; there is a coup attempt led by Elizabeth II’s second cousin Admiral Louis Mountbatten (the formidable Charles Dance) to overthrow the Labour Party; and a stoush between the government and mine workers over pay disputes has led to nationwide power outages. Amid it all, the royal family deems it fair to request a pay rise, leading to widespread mockery. Ostensibly, times are tough for everyone.
In one deeply meta episode, the Windsors attempt to revitalise their image by inviting the BBC into Buckingham Palace to make a documentary film about the family. Surely then, they think, the public will understand that the royals are everymen working hard for their pay cheques. The film bombs, of course, only serving to widen the chasm between the royals and their subjects.
Some dramas aren’t captured by the BBC’s cameras: the marriage between wild child Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones is disintegrating in light of his affair; Prince Charles falls in love with Camilla Shand (later Parker Bowles), but is left heartbroken and resentful of his family and their meddling; and Princess Alice, the estranged mother of Prince Philip, is brought back into the family fold. The Queen floats through it all, intervening only when necessary, while indulging in her own grief about a life unlived and the suppression of her passions in service to the crown.
There’s a notable lack of romanticism – or what some might even call warmth – in this season of The Crown. During an emotional breaking point, the Queen concedes to Prime Minister Wilson in one of their weekly meetings: “I have known for some time there is something wrong with me … How else would you describe it when something is missing?” She is referring to her initial refusal to visit Aberfan after the landslide that buried alive the occupants of the village junior school, reasoning that visiting disaster zones was beyond the realm of her duty. The real Queen regards this initial inaction as the biggest regret of her reign. Prince Charles’s heartbreak, Winston Churchill’s death – these are events that distress the Queen, but neither truly shakes her.
Colman’s performance is perfectly withholding as a now older and self-assured monarch, a far cry from her catatonic portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite. She is terse but never rigid, tasked with the difficult challenge of navigating the mostly internal journey of a woman who struggles to summon any strong emotions after decades of subjugating her own humanity. It’s a task that other royal women who have been prematurely thrust into the spotlight, scrutinised and suffocated by protocol – Meghan Markle the most recent – have understandably found difficult to bear. This makes Colman’s one and only unreserved display of emotion as Queen, following a tragedy in the final episode of the season, all the more surprising and gratifying. The placement of this catharsis by showrunner Peter Morgan feels strategic, almost an offering of thanks to viewers for enduring an especially slow season.
Fans of The Crown’s first two seasons will be accustomed to its pace: sumptuous slowness, which is in large part what makes the show and its performances so powerful. We’re suspended in moments of pathos and stillness in which actors can truly shine, an indulgence normally reserved for theatre. However, the drier moments in this season make you yearn for some of the drama and scandal – dare I say, the soapiness – of the previous seasons. Perhaps this dryness is less to do with the production itself and more to do with the facts of the time: during this period of the Queen’s life, most of the drama was occurring outside the family as the monarch’s power diminished; for once, the world is affecting the royals, when for so long they were the ones who affected the world. The dramatisation of certain events feels contrived, however, particularly Prince Philip’s midlife crisis, which is catalysed by the moon landing and his meeting with Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.
Still, there are great moments of lightness. As the season progresses through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the audience is treated to a pop culture soundscape featuring, among others, David Bowie. And the introduction of Princess Anne, played brilliantly with understated and acerbic wit by rising star Erin Doherty, breathes modernity and youth into the palace. But it’s Helena Bonham Carter, as Princess Margaret, who gets to have all the fun – charming the United States president, entertaining at parties and having an affair with a man almost two decades her junior (Sir Roderic Victor “Roddy” Llewellyn, played by Harry Treadaway). Bonham Carter even contacted Princess Margaret through a psychic medium to get permission to portray her, which is possibly the most Helena Bonham Carter act imaginable. It’s a welcome departure to see the actress grounded in realism and drama once more, while still sparkling and delighting as the troubled princess. Her pairing with a more muted Colman elevates the royal sisters’ rivalry to new, complex heights.
Among the other roles, Josh O’Connor is well cast as Prince Charles and offers a compassionate portrayal of a sensitive and artistic young man with deep-seated mother issues, whose story the public never had the opportunity to understand before he was largely written off as unloving and cruel as his marriage to Princess Diana collapsed.
The Crown’s ongoing success is that it allows us to sympathise with the royals without ever letting them, the monarchy, the class system or colonisation off the hook. Beyond that, it’s a gripping soap with a defining edge: it’s rare to have a biopic series about a still-living historical figure navigating her life’s work and inevitably transforming herself, for better or worse, alongside the transforming world. All opinions aside, it can’t be easy to govern, and it can’t be easy being a middle-aged woman doing the governing. Normally these women are disposed of, overthrown – something that hasn’t happened to the Queen. She’s carried on. In the season’s final episode, Princess Margaret offers Elizabeth II a gentle reminder that, despite her loneliness, she must prevail and hold the family, the country and the Commonwealth together: “There is only one Queen.”
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LITERATURE Kitty Flanagan & Rebecca De Unamuno in conversation about 488 Rules for Life
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 16, 2019 as "Crowning glories".
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