The moments of delightful surprise in The Crown are smothered by its refusal to permit uncertainty. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.
The unsaid is, of course, the most compelling thing about the British royal family. The Crown tests whether the said can be equally compelling. To this end, season four of the Netflix series gives us a backstage pass to the family behind The Firm. We eavesdrop on marital arguments between Princess Diana and Prince Charles, trail the family’s hunting trips in Balmoral, crack open the door on Diana’s bingeing and purging and cook dinner with Margaret Thatcher.
These acts of revelation work when they are deft flights of imagination, rather than acts of speculation weighed down by their source material. In the first episode, for example, Charles meets Diana for the first time. Dressed as a dryad and hiding behind a vase of flowers, she apologises for her presence: “Sorry, I’m not here. I was given strict instructions to remain out of sight.” With a shared, secretive smile, he tells her, “I haven’t seen a thing.”
This imagined encounter is delirious and fatal. Diana pretends to hide from him, when she is really luring him; she is dressed as a beautiful mythological creature, just like the one she came to be; they lie to themselves and to each other; he makes a promise not to expose her, which he breaks immediately afterwards. Her charisma and power lie within her ability to be self-effacing even as she upstages everyone around her.
I enjoyed this scene, as well as others of Diana and Charles’s achingly perfect courtship – the approval she receives from her future in-laws at Balmoral; the evening at the opera when she curtsies low to Charles and he smiles, relishing her subservience – because these moments surprised me. It had never occurred to me that their relationship was not always doomed, that Diana was once 18 and excited by the fantasy she was entering, that her charisma was initially a source of pleasure – not pain – for Charles. That there was a moment in which the word “fairytale” did not have inverted commas around it and that – for a very brief, sunlit moment – they might have loved each other.
The lightness and delicate mystery of this scene is soon smothered by the show’s heavy-handed dialogue and subservience to its source material. The Crown is unwilling to let uncertainty linger for long enough to build the delicious tension of a good love story or drama. It seems iron-fisted about interpretation, constantly clarifying character motivations and leaving little space for exploring the muddiness of human emotion.
As exacting as the instructions of a monarch, The Crown’s desire to make perfectly clear who everyone is to each other and how everyone is feeling at all times lacks respect for the mystery of other human beings and for the audience’s ability to draw their own conclusions or make their own discoveries.
After Charles and Diana’s first meeting, Diana’s sister – who is dating Charles at the time – tells Charles that Diana is “obsessed” with him and deliberately put herself in his way. The facts conveyed in this dialogue are part of existing Diana and Charles lore: Diana’s huge crush on Charles, her determination to have him, his shift in focus from the older to the younger sister. But unloading this pedantic list of biographical detail on the audience makes the melancholy of wanting someone you don’t have, the tensions and precarious hopes of first love, disappear.
Peter Morgan’s fidelity to the source material inhibits his construction of this family as characters, and of events as scenes rather than re-creations. You could make a drinking game from the times we are reminded that Margaret Thatcher is a shopkeeper’s daughter, that she is a woman in a man’s world, that Charles saw Lord Mountbatten as a mentor and father figure, and so on.
At its worst, The Crown’s dialogue can feel lifted from biographies, Wikipedia pages or articles in Tatler magazine. And in the case of Diana, the late Princess of Wales looms larger than ever, eclipsing Morgan’s Diana just as she eclipsed everything and everyone else.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2020 as "A heavy crown".
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