If production value were the only element involved in storytelling, The Crown would be the program of the year. This retelling of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne after World War II is reportedly the most expensive production in Netflix’s still-young history — a distinction that might not mean much, considering it was applied to The Get Down mere months ago and will likely be exceeded by something else soon — and the ultimate compliment of many an old-school Hollywood studio boss, “All the money is onscreen,” applies here. It’s overwhelmingly big, episode by episode and scene by scene, and the fine details of ritual, dress, protocol, and setting are scrupulously observed from one moment to the next, to the point where we seem to be watching less of an epic narrative than a procession of life-sized, three-dimensional historical dioramas, populated by every great English character actor (and one famous American ringer) that had an open spot in their schedule.
I found it exhausting and frequently frustrating because its concentration on the relationship between setting and character (i.e., what people do and how they behave in very specific situations) tends to crowd out many of the larger questions that should be asked in a story that’s about the inevitable decline of an empire and a royal family’s increasingly marginal role within it. But who am I kidding with these complaints? This white elephant is tailor-made for Anglophile TV buffs in North America and perhaps around the world as well — a ten-hour, ten-part production that’s but the tip of a projected decline-of-England iceberg, beginning in 1947 and ending with Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1953. Netflix has already green-lit a second season and could conceivably keep it going for many more, à la Game of Thrones (too bad George R.R. Martin already claimed that title, I guess).
The series is created and written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and directed by a capable team of filmmakers, including Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours), and the immense cast might constitute the most perfect assortment of character actors in historical roles since Oliver Stone’s Nixon. First among equals is Claire Foy as Elizabeth, who finds all sorts of nuances in what is unfortunately and inevitably a mostly reactive part; the supporting cast includes John Lithgow as Winston Churchill (jutting out his jaw and scrunching down to play short, and somehow convincing us that he’s not tall and elegant); former Doctor Who Matt Smith as an intriguingly peevish and closed-off Prince Philip; Greg Wise as Louis Lord Mountbatten; Jeremy Northam as future prime minister Anthony Eden; Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret; Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary, who recoils from much bad news in this first run of episodes; Victoria Hamilton as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; and Jared Harris as King George VI.
Harris’s performance alone makes The Crown worth watching. He understandably has to compete with everyone else for precious scraps of screen time, and then trudging, Charlie Brown-like, beneath a cloud of impending tragedy (the first episode opens in 1947 with George, a heavy smoker, coughing blood into a toilet; he would die of lung cancer five years later). And yet Harris still manages to communicate the character’s understated sensitivity and awareness of his circumscribed role in England’s drama so poignantly that one can’t help being moved by the performance and think of it long after the character has been erased from the ensemble. (His raspy performance of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” after a dinner party is devastating.)
Foy has the most difficult role of all, borderline thankless in some ways. The character’s gender handicaps her just as much as the royal family’s increasingly tangential role in the nation’s political life, and on top of it all, she’s reserved, even prim, compared to the stronger or more colorful characters gathered around her (her reaction to learning her nickname, Shirley Temple, is marvelous). Most of the best scenes focus on her, Harris, or both. One of them makes such superb use of silent, reactive close-ups that you may wish that the series had attempted more such moments. There’s a lot of talk in this series, much of it blatantly expository. At least Morgan and company have gone the extra mile to stage info-dumps against splendid, often kinetic backdrops: At one point we get to see Eden beg George to talk to Churchill and ask him to quit coming on so strong all the time, and the whole conversation occurs against the backdrop of a pheasant hunt, the camera pulling back periodically to show multiple plumes of shotgun smoke blasting into the air. But despite such efforts, The Crown never entirely figures out how to make the political and domestic drama genuinely dramatic, much less bestow complexity on characters outside England’s innermost circle (the scenes of Philip and Elizabeth in Kenya, in particularly, are face-palm condescending).
Some of the series’ limitations were probably inevitable. The story of a leader-as-figurehead with no real power has been done before, sometimes thoughtfully — one of the better examples is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, which was similarly entombed by its own breathtaking production design and costuming — but these sorts of productions nearly always end up becoming exercises in pageantry with a few striking character moments scattered here and there. At least the character moments are striking here, and the pageantry can’t be beat. The program’s MVPs are production designer Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love) and costumer Michelle Clapton (Game of Thrones), and you sense their dedication in the many scenes where presentation is key. Frocks, frilly dresses, sabers, crowns, choruses, footmen, silver trays, and velvet curtains are the true stars of many scenes, and when the drama falters, there’s always something to admire in the foreground and background. No expense has been spared, and the entire production is such a well-oiled machine that during the more confident displays of visual prowess — such as the moment in the pilot where we see the royal family posing for portraits beneath a series of instantly raised and lowered backdrops — you get a sense of why the sun once never set on the British empire.
*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.