I’ve long believed that The Crown is primarily valuable as an acting showcase. In previous years, the third and fourth seasons were examined by this prism here on The Film Experience, so it seems fitting to perpetuate the tradition. It’s only appropriate for, if nothing else, the Netflix show is a staunch defender of doing the same over and over again, with as little change as possible – tradition upheld for eternity. And yet, to focus solely on the acting would be a false reading of what is a disappointing fifth chapter. As much as the cast succeeds, the series’ foray into the 90s brings about a striking imbalance. Melodrama takes such precedence over History that the results cannot help but lack the grandeur of seasons past…
The first hint of trouble comes early, as Peter Morgan starts season 5 with a flashback to young Elizabeth. Claire Foy reprises the role in a stylized prologue, christening the royal yacht Britannia, whose fate will bookend the ten episodes. As her doctor’s too-personal question soon reveals, the palatial vessel is the Queen’s favorite home, an embodiment of her personality and autonomy. However, just like the monarch, it’s growing old and needing maintenance, expensive refurbishments that even the Conservative government feels unwilling to finance. The yacht’s symbolic purpose is unmistakable, reflecting the Queen at a time when her relevance as a national institution was up for debate.
Indeed, the connections are so blatant and insistently repeated that, at one point, even the script pokes fun at its propensity for the parallels. The matter of the monarchy’s obsolescence has been paraded around before, often tied to meditations on the History of an Empire crumbling as the wheels of time keep turning, bringing modernity ever closer. However, the metaphorical yacht feels like too neat a construct, its importance artificially inflated until it’s hard not to feel Morgan’s hand forcing reality into his neat pro-monarchist spiel, complete with a pity party for the royals. The economic recession is mentioned but the Windsors’ outrage at paying for the royal yacht’s repairs remains underlined.
The outside world tries to piece the insular world of the Windsors, only for the show to push it away, ad nauseam, or fold it into the familial soap opera. For example, the conflicts in Ireland are alluded for a joke comparing Charles and Diana’s strife-filled separation to the Troubles. As for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that only serves to frame the growing distance between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.
In some regard, the series has always been like this. Nonetheless, Morgan and his team often widened their scope beyond the palace walls. Episodes like the ones dedicated to the Great Smog of London, the Suez Crisis, the Aberfan disaster, and other such incidents put the royal soap opera into needed perspective.
They also made the show feel bigger, like an epic retelling of History molded to the demands of high drama. In comparison, this year’s installment feels relatively small and closed-off, devoid of an outsider’s view into the petty intrigues of courtly life and the ruler’s duty. Take, for instance, John Major, whose tenure as Prime Minister encompasses all but the season’s last episode. Unlike Churchill and Thatcher, or Wilson, even Eden, the character never comes into his own, remaining peripheral to the storylines, even in the episodes that strain to include him. Of course, part of this stems from the material facts of his premiership. However, most of the blame lies on the priorities and focus of the writing.
Part of my frustration comes from personal anti-monarchist beliefs that the show rarely represents and never endorses. Even so, there was originally enough ambiguity, and a willingness to criticize the rulers that has sine left the show. Though Charles spends most of his screen-time whining or scheming, one never feels that the narrative will openly criticize his choices. An episode revolving around Camilla-gate is so invested in providing a sympathetic portrayal it excises Diana from the record, leaving her in a silent role, only briefly glimpsed in the famous Revenge Dress. In another episode, Mohammed Al-Fayed’s racism is spotlighted. In contrast the royal family’s prejudices are sanded into smooth oblivion. Let’s not even discuss the Andrew situation.
I’m not asking Morgan and Netflix to cater to my political beliefs. They’ve never done so, but from season 2 to 4, it felt as if The Crown was willing to work within a liminal space of dramatic ambivalence that allowed viewers to find what they wanted within its hallowed halls so full of prestige, privilege, and power. It was a Rorschach test, more illuminating on the viewer than the series’ given subjects, revealing biases like some cursed reflection pool. Some saw it as pro-monarchist Pablum, while others found nourishment in its subtle digs at the royals’ façade, looking beneath its surface to find tiresome, alienated people full of flaws and entitlement. There are those who look at the same material and decry it as an insult to the rulers (hi, Dame Judi), while we have those who love it all and the monarchy too.
This wealth of possible interpretations depended on a curated ambivalence that’s as hard to maintain intact as the Britannia. As a result, season 5 not only lacks in grandeur, but it also lacks in politics, History, tonal balance, and the whole shebang. The inkblot test is gone, substituted by a meek drawing with nothing to say about what it portrays beyond acknowledging its value as tabloid fodder and an abstract sense of national importance. Maybe that’s what most people want after the Queen’s death and Charles’s ascension to the throne – events that in no way influenced this season’s production but will surely affect season 6. However, it’s not what I wanted, and to hide my disappointment would be a falsehood.
All that said, it’d be a lie to state I found no enjoyment in The Crown’s fifth season. The production values are still superlative, with lavish sets as far as the eye can see and costumes to match. Sure, Amy Roberts never quite figures out how to adapt Elizabeth Debicki’s frame to Diana’s iconic style, but the reproductions still impress. Likewise, incursions into the Romanov’s final days, a whole episode dedicated to how the Al-Fayed’s built their fortune and influence, and other such moments offer plenty of aesthetic variation, showcasing its creative team’s attention to detail and commitment to televisual splendor. In other words, Netflix keeps spending fortunes on the show, and all that money is on-screen for all to see and gawk at.
Moreover, the acting is as exemplary as it’s always been, remaining the main reason to give The Crown a chance. Sadly, Jonny Lee Miller is wasted, given no opportunity to command the screen or explore his characterization beyond surface-level details. Apart from him, however, each principal actor gets a chance to show what they’re worth, and many guest stars enjoy the same treatment. The penultimate episode, in particular, feels like a Best Casting submission with a collection of divorcing couples presenting their stories in bleak interludes – the unholy marriage of When Harry Met Sally’s spousal testimonies with the realism of Mike Leigh. As the Al-Fayed patriarch, Salim Daw is another highlight, sinking his teeth into his showcase episode with delirious gusto.
Jonathan Pryce gets less to do than his predecessors, but a series of gentle character-driven storylines allows him to work within a gentler register, revealing new sides of Phillip in scenes shared with Natascha McElhone’s Penny Knatchbull. As for Dominic West’s Charles, there’s much to be said about the visual discrepancy between actor and character. However, he quickly overcomes such handicaps, capturing the gestural essence of the erstwhile Prince of Wales, from his rigid body language to a lip-biting tic. Nevertheless, what impresses me most is his ability to manage evolving tonalities, especially in scenes shared with Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana. As the couple autopsies their failed marriage over scrambled eggs, post-divorce amicability gradually sours until one’s witnessed each performer run through a gamut of contradictory emotions.
It’s a brilliant acting exercise, one of many in a season stacked with such challenges. Imelda Staunton, for example, spends a number of episodes negotiating the complicated personas of one whose sense of personhood is systematically denied by external duty and internal will. In a virtual press conference, the actress talked about this push-and-pull, how the role makes it, so you have to bring the audience in without showing much, keeping sentimental clarity for precise moments like the annus horribilis speech that marks the season’s fourth episode. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the best Elizabeth to grace the screen, besting Foy and Coleman with her studied rigidity and non-demonstrative ways.
Staunton and Lesley Manville also sell their sisterly bond like nobody’s business, finding morsels of humor in a humorless show. The actress who already graced the big screen with her Mrs. Harris earlier this year further finds notes of romanticism that feel quite rare within The Crown’s big picture. Her episode with Timothy Dalton, when Princess Margaret reencounters Peter Townsend decades after their broken engagement, is a delight. Bedecked in fuchsia silk, Manville is a vision of royal glamour, complete with a cigarette holder adding boldness to every gesture. And yet, her old paramour melts something in the perfect picture, melancholy emerging in broken-hearted melodies.
But of course, Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess Diana is the star of the season or, at least, its back half. Moving away from the years spent wilting within a dying marriage, the Australian thespian gets to explore a pricklier version of Diana than the one embodied by Emma Corrin. Indeed, she’s the one who keeps The Crown’s trademark ambivalence alive in this ten-episode streak, constructing a characterization that’s both sympathetic and incisive, even mildly unlikeable or impishly funny when the opportunity strikes. Much has been written about her vocal impersonation, but the performance’s greatness can be found in the discrepancies between fact and fiction, how there’s more bite to her expressions during the BBC interview, the glimmers of self-aware artifice when posing for photographers.
From paralyzing paranoia to awkward flirting, authoritative steel to shattered depression, the performance is not without risks or wild gambits. For example, Debicki brings a sense of intelligence verging on calculation that’s been mostly absent from the Princess of Wales’ many screen portrayals. Whether that’s good or bad will depend on the viewer and the baggage they bring. I anticipate plenty of naysayers, perchance some controversy, but count me among the fans. After years of excellent work across stage, TV, and film, it seems this might be the thing that finally makes Elizabeth Debicki the star she deserves to be. The Emmy campaign starts now!