Creator: Peter Morgan
Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Corrin, Gillian Anderson, Josh O’Connor, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter
Streaming on: Netflix
Given my long-standing wariness of films about British Royalty, it’s hard to explain why I’ve sworn my allegiance to a long-form series about British Royalty. What is it about The Crown? What is it about watching a bunch of uptight monarchs who defy Darwin by preserving an institution emblematic of the colonial horrors of history? What is it about watching the descendents of murderous sovereigns uphold their legacy as a regressive reminder of bloodlines and nepotism? What is it about a family that views itself no differently from patriotic soldiers who sacrifice their lives in the line of duty: patriotic soldiers trapped in palaces and privilege, who sacrifice their humanity at the altar of duty? What is it about their existential battles against the tides of time?
I suppose, in the most fundamental sense, it’s about watching the reinvention of storytelling. This reinvention is a narrative requirement, not an artistic choice. Most stories are made of performers who must pretend to be people, but The Crown is a story of people who must pretend to be performers. It’s also about inverting the nature of acting: Actors are artists who are paid to feel and express things, but The Crown features reluctant actors who are paid to feel and express nothing. Queen Elizabeth II and her family wrestle with the paradoxical cruelty of their roles – of being inert fairytale figures in a real world. Of oppressing themselves to be an escape for the oppressed. Of being silent beacons in an era of voices.
This art of nothingness extends to the way Olivia Colman in particular, as the Queen, uses her lips. The Oscar-winning actress has a toothy face – her inherently parted lips are a distinct alphabet of her characters’ emotional grammar. But in The Crown, she purses her lips to resounding effect, during moments in which a verbal response might have been the default course of action. The pursed lips are both literal and figurative, disruptive and traditional. You sense that it doesn’t come naturally to her, just like catapulting off the ground doesn’t come naturally to a pole vaulter: she tries, practices, controls, masters. And irrespective of moral context – whether in the form of ruthless royals or gifted athletes – it’s thrilling to watch humans lose themselves in pursuit of their craft. It takes heart to succeed at anything, not least at being heartless.
The Crown Season 4 is remarkable because it reaches the pinnacle of this conflict. The first three seasons examine the struggles of the inner circle of Buckingham Palace. The family members are their own heroes and villains, as they slowly come to terms with the price of their lofty titles. We see Elizabeth at odds with the individualism of her sister, her husband, her uncle, her older son. But the latest season, which covers the period between 1979 and 1990, reveals a Queen whose apathy – and by extension, job profile – is severely tested. She finds herself relegated to the middle of two extremes: the robotic doggedness of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the crippling sensitivity of Princess Diana. Thatcher’s frigid approach forces Elizabeth to feel human: In the episode 48:1, the Queen breaks protocol to express her opinion on her “uncaring” Prime Minister’s refusal to slap an Apartheid-afflicted South Africa with economic sanctions. Whereas Diana’s primal approach forces Elizabeth to feel inhuman: In one of the most affecting scenes of the season, we see a desperate Diana hug her Queen, her mother-in-law, only to be greeted with a set of indifferent limbs. One can tell that the Queen is fleetingly confused by the urge to give in, to soothe the mother of her grandchildren, yet she puts on that notoriously stoic mask to squash the girl’s desires.
We see Elizabeth at odds with the individualism of her sister, her husband, her uncle, her older son. But the latest season, which covers the period between 1979 and 1990, reveals a Queen whose apathy – and by extension, job profile – is severely tested.
Most importantly, both Thatcher and Diana are physical outsiders, and therefore subject to limited control, unlike spiritual outsiders like Charles and Margaret and Edward in previous seasons. As a result, we feel the full force of the Crown’s cult – the ganging up, the gossiping and bitching, the stepmotherly rage and withering gaze – from an external viewpoint. Even the more unorthodox royals are so bitter about their own shackles that instead of empathizing with Diana they subject her to the torture they had once endured. It helps (or doesn’t) that the makers have written Diana – and Emma Corrin has played her – with a glow of posthumous luminosity. Every time she appears on screen, the ghost of her doomed future seems ingrained into the frame. We know how it ends, so Corrin’s coy voice, her flushed cheeks and her anguished eyes attain a poignance that isn’t so much the mark of a spitting image as it is the symbol of an irreversible tragedy. She looks nothing like Diana, yet channelizes that trademark cocktail of fragility and beauty with eerie precision.
In previous seasons, the Queen was always the focal point of a narrative that branched into connecting portraits. For example, I’d always wonder what Elizabeth was upto during “the Charles” episode or the “Philip-Moon” episode or the “Margaret episode”. Their episodes doubled up as time-lapse montages in service of the Queen’s life. Now Diana becomes that person. Though she appears in the background (or doesn’t appear at all) in the episodes centered on others, her presence looms large over the period’s tangential flights of non-fancy. So when the family starts to notice her popularity, their envy wears a sharp duality: she’s stealing the attention of Britain as well as the series. Similarly, Gillian Anderson is so artfully static as Thatcher that in her sit-downs with the Queen, Elizabeth looks insecure of her Prime Minister out-numbing her.
More often than not, the filmmaking of The Crown tends to elicit the most primitive of reactions. We think in terms of its magnificent scale, its production value, its tight cinematography, its episodic chapters, its soaring score. But Season 4 allows us to scratch beyond the surface and see the tension between the characters and the craft. The camera “captures” the royals in more ways than one, imprisoning them in close-ups with unwavering focus. There’s also an ugliness to the relationships that is often at odds with the sophisticated environment – at times, it’s almost like the surroundings are pressurizing its people to act like they belong within them. For instance, on their much-publicized trip to Australia and New Zealand, Charles and Diana have an intense spat. But it’s impossible to not get distracted by the postcard backdrop: a setting sun, a quaint cottage, a lush valley. The dissonance is unsettling: they look like petty live-action characters soiling an animated setting. Midway through the argument, they arrive at a mutual solution – promising to give each other the validation they crave for – as if magically coerced by the frame to be worthy of its beauty.
Most visible perhaps, in Season 4 of The Crown, is the concept of “narrative energy”. In a period drama, a conversation – or at its most aggressive, a confrontation – carries the collective burden of drama, action, romance, revolution and resolution. The power of speech – or at its least aggressive, silence – must do all the heavy-lifting in a universe of emotional stillness. Consequently, we remember the story in terms of its oratory design: the Elizabeth-Thatcher chats, the Margaret epiphany, the Charles-Diana feud, the loneliness of Diana in her first years. Their world cannot afford the luxury of decisive action and dramatic flourishes; it’s just people talking, living, doing, unfeeling. But how does the narrative visually sustain this tone? By finding parallels, and speaking, when the characters and their lives cannot.
The transitions: An unemployment line in Thatcher’s London dissolves into a queue of adoring well-wishers outside the Queen’s palace. The history: A young Thatcher at university is seen getting inspired by the young Queen’s Commonwealth speech. The foreboding metaphors: An episode featuring Thatcher and Diana invited by the Royals to Balmoral Castle is centered on a stag hunt. The stag, which was injured in a commoner’s estate and stumbles onto the Crown’s property, remains elusive when Thatcher is around. But the wide-eyed Diana’s arrival triggers its death, with its head soon mounted on the walls of the castle. Creator Peter Morgan used this trope in The Queen, too, where the sighting of a stag following Diana’s death becomes a pivotal moment of the film.
The treatment: the first time Diana is hounded by the paparazzi, the clicks of their cameras are exaggerated even as she secretly enjoys the attention. The ironies: ‘Conservative’ leader Thatcher is seen cleaning her own flat – getting her own house in order – while discussing the tough-love ways to run the country. At one point, she is seen cooking a strange English version of khichuri for her all-male cabinet while subtly condemning the third world. Sometimes, the characters spell out the themes. In an episode where Thatcher’s son goes missing during a desert rally, Elizabeth visits all her four offsprings to learn more about them. Later at night, she confides in her husband about how “our children are lost in their own deserts too”.
More than anything, Season 4 reiterates the cinema of perspective. The Crown is an empire of victims, good and bad and weak and strong. And victimhood lies in the eyes of the viewer. Two more seasons of Princess Diana remain, but a part of her is killed here by those who resent her for stealing their thrones of victimhood. The Queen is annoyed that she is no more the most famous victim of the United Kingdom; Charles and Camilla are upset that they aren’t the most affable victims of the legacy anymore. Diana’s perspective paints them all as the villains: an identity they worked hard to shed for the quarter of a century spanning three seasons. The princess exists in a mournful vacuum between pursed and parted lips – a damning reminder of the truth that it takes heart to succeed at anything, not least at failing.