“And, if I may: Never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor,” Winston Churchill warns his young queen in Netflix’s new drama The Crown. “Never let them see that carrying the crown is often a burden. Let them look at you, but let them see only the eternal.”
For those who didn’t grow up under the British monarchy (and even for some who did), Queen Elizabeth can be a hard person in whom to find sympathy. She is the cold, distant symbol of an obsolete but fabulously wealthy system and has held a hard line on its antiquated rules, which at various points in her lifetime stood in the way of her uncle, her sister, and her son from marrying the people they loved because the various institutions of church and state did not approve.
Peter Morgan once wrote a wonderful film — The Queen, the middle piece in his trilogy of scripts about British prime minister Tony Blair — casting a spotlight on the way those hidebound traditions and aloof bearing can play so very badly in modern times, as the Elizabeth of the 1990s dealt with the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. The Queen wasn’t without some degree of empathy for the position its title character found herself in, but was primarily a portrait of an institution, and the woman asked to be the living embodiment of it, wildly out of step with the times and the national mood.
With The Crown, which Netflix debuts on Friday (I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season), Morgan has gone back to the beginning to show how Elizabeth got that way, and to illustrate the great personal cost that comes from assuming the throne, or even being related to someone who does. It’s a smart, beautifully mounted, and at times very moving production. Tales of the rituals and burdens of nobility usually put me to sleep (even during the brief period when I was enjoying Downton Abbey, it was entirely for the servants’ stories), but this one worked its magic even on me, so I can only imagine the agony and ecstasy it will elicit from royal believers.
The first season begins in 1947 with the wedding of Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to Philip (Matt Smith) — a marriage that both parties had to fight for, as there were more traditional matches for the eldest daughter and heir to King George VI (Jared Harris) — and goes into the mid-’50s, not long after the retirement of Churchill (John Lithgow), whose second stint as Prime Minister allowed him to mentor the inexperienced queen after the death of her father.