One of my biggest surprises was how much I enjoyed the Netflix series The Crown– hardly a Royalist, I found the real magic of seasons one and two was the way the series brought to life British history, vividly bringing to life national events/crises whilst peppering it with nods to House Windsor and their occasional (and ironic) family strife. The huge production values afforded by Netflix, and the great cast, was all just icing on the cake, and the series one of the streaming giants undoubted successes: genuinely great television.
So with the cast being replaced to reflect the passing of years, I approached this third season with considerable trepidation. Its certainly a brave move by Netflix- traditionally, once viewers have become emotionally invested with an actor’s portrayal of a character, its difficult to transfer enthusiasm and acceptance to a new face, never mind an ensemble piece like this. I have to admit, throughout this season I’ve had a hard time accepting Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth, always irritated by the loss of Clare Foy. The jump from Foy’s youthful beauty and irrepressible warmth to Colman’s middle-aged maturity and cool distance seems too sudden and too far a leap. By the end of the season my wariness had lessened to grudging acceptance, and its hardly Colman’s fault- its largely in the writing, but its possibly the seasons biggest miss-step and likely a wholly subjective thing on my part. I just find myself thinking about past tv shows and how closely we identify with particular actors, and how without them they can seem like wholly different shows.
The rest of the new cast seem to be an easier fit. Tobias Menzies, who’ve I’ve always been a huge admirer of, makes a better Prince Philip than Matt Smith, who always carried a bit too much Dr Who baggage with him for my liking. Menzies’ Duke of Edinburgh is quite formidable and the episodes that focus upon him -chiefly the excellent one about the moon landing and his own mid-life crisis- are amongst the seasons finest. There’s just something genuinely interesting and emphatic about him that replaces that which Foy’s portrayal of Elizabeth enjoyed. Helena Bonham Carter seems to be playing Princess Margaret so naturally that its no work at all- its perfect casting, and even though the leap in age between herself and previous season’s Vanessa Kirby is as jarring, its a more successful transition than between Foy and Colman.
Least successful this season, for me at any rate, are the episodes that dwell on the Royal family and their internal dynamics, and most successful those episodes offering perspective on national history and events. The best of them is ‘Aberfan’ concerning the terrible disaster of 1966, which is a terribly powerful and effecting hour of television which should be destined for Awards consideration- its so powerful its almost an ordeal getting through it without becoming a trembling wreck. As its the third episode of the season, it oddly feels like it arrives too soon, that its too early a high-point and the season struggles to follow it. It only really recovers at the seventh episode, ‘Moondust’ and if I had a criticism about the season its that structure, although as its tied to portraying events between 1964 and 1977 its likely unavoidable.
Its also true that Colman’s Elizabeth is something of an unknown quantity in the season- its interesting that what one would expect to be a big celebration of the Queens Silver Jubilee year of 1977 ends on a very quiet, restrained, insular shot of her stony-faced gaze at the camera/audience. It fails to be an exultant, triumphant moment- clearly a deliberate commentary but nonetheless an odd one and symptomatic of what the show is obviously trying to do with her character. In the first two seasons Foy’s portrayal was open and warm and there was a sense that the character was knowable- now they have replaced her with Colman, they evidently want to add some mystique and sense of the unknown about her. Intellectually its fine and I can understand why they are doing it but the emotional distance is probably the series biggest problem, to me.
It remains great television though, and I really am enthusiastic for the fourth season next year.