A Monarch Balances Personal And Royal Demands In 'The Crown'

Nov 3, 2016
Originally published on November 3, 2016 8:13 am
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Anglophiles looking for an escape from America's often outrageous election news may have a new, more refined TV option. Netflix's "The Crown," which dramatizes Queen Elizabeth II's reign, debuts its first season this Friday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans explains where this epic journey hits a few potholes.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In "The Crown," a 20-something Queen Elizabeth often seems ambivalent about taking the throne, especially when getting the job means debating a question with her assistant that few people ever consider.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It would help if we could decide here and now on your name, that is the name you will take as queen. Your father took George. Obviously his name is - was Albert. And before he abdicated, your uncle took Edward. Of course, his name was David.

CLAIRE FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) What's wrong with my name?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nothing.

DEGGANS: It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, decides to keep her given name. But that's the central drama of "The Crown," where Elizabeth and her relatives struggle to balance the demands of their titles with their needs as human beings.

The first episode opens in the late 1940s as Elizabeth's father, King George VI, is still alive. It features a scene one British newspaper said could shock some viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

JARED HARRIS: (As King George VI, coughing)

DEGGANS: King George, played by Jared Harris, is coughing up flecks of blood into a toilet. And when he asks his valets about it, the answer he gets isn't so great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

HARRIS: (As King George VI) A lot of blood in my spittle yesterday morning. Ought I be concerned?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, I'm not a doctor, sir. If it's just specks, sir...

HARRIS: (As King George VI) It was.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's probably just the cold weather.

DEGGANS: Viewers watching him suck down cigarette after cigarette know the truth. But because the mood of the nation hangs on the health of its king, doctors weren't quite so forthcoming. As Queen, Elizabeth tries to break tradition by taking her husband's last name and avoid moving her family into Buckingham Palace. The task of confronting her over that falls to legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played as an aging eccentric by John Lithgow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

JOHN LITHGOW: (As Sir Winston Churchill) Many have questioned my relevance and whether I still have something to offer in public life. The answer is I have, which is to leave in place a sovereign prepared for office equipped, armed for her duty.

FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Yes, I am queen. But I am also a woman and a wife. And I would argue stability under this roof might even be in the national interest.

DEGGANS: Guess which role, monarch or supportive wife, actually wins the day? If this all sounds like small potatoes for a series with the look and scope of an epic film, you've hit on the biggest weakness of "The Crown." We don't fully see how the royal family symbolizes the challenges England faced post-war. And series like "Downton Abbey" have already shown how the British aristocracy was challenged by more modern ideas like divorce and premarital sex.

Instead, viewers are trapped in the cocoon of royal life right along with the monarchy, where a life's drama hangs on simpler questions like, say, can Queen Elizabeth's husband Philip - played by pouty "Doctor Who" alum Matt Smith - actually accept that he will always be her subordinate?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

MATT SMITH: (As Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh) What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family? You've taken my career from me. You've taken my home. You've taken my name. I thought we were in this together.

DEGGANS: Mostly Phillip comes off as spoiled, blaming the queen for the obvious obligations that come with their pampered lives. As a rebellious American, I think what's missing here is the voice of the British people. Without them, "The Crown" gives us little sense how the marriages and mishaps of a mostly ceremonial monarchy could still inspire a great nation. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.