The writer of hit film The Queen returns to his favourite subject this week with a new Netflix series offering perhaps the most intimate portrait yet of Britain’s head of state.
All 10 episodes of The Crown will be available from Friday, continuing a tradition of big-budget original content that has seen the streaming service lavished with praise for such hits as House of Cards and Narcos.
The series comes from the pen of Peter Morgan, who lifted the veil on the private world of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006), which was directed by Stephen Frears and earned Helen Mirren an Oscar in the title role.
Morgan went back to Britain’s longest-serving monarch with the stage play The Audience, which concentrated on her relationship with her various prime ministers -- and which also starred Mirren.
While these previous dramas depicted a mature and then aging Elizabeth II, Morgan and director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) start out The Crown with a young Princess Elizabeth as she marries Philip Mountbatten in the uncertain aftermath of post-war Britain.
Netflix has already committed to a second season and has so far dedicated over $100 million to The Crown, according to several reports.
“Nothing you or His Royal Highness does is a private matter,” Winston Churchill warns the 25-year-old Elizabeth, as she embarks on a very public life which has seen her become arguably history’s most recognizable royal.
For all her fame, the 90-year-old monarch has managed somehow to reveal little of herself over 64 years on the throne.
Played by Claire Foy, whose last royal role was as Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s 2015 miniseries Wolf Hall, the Elizabeth Windsor of The Crown is a level-headed young woman who is nevertheless prone to moments of levity and sensuality.
Morgan, who plans to dedicate one season of The Crown to each of the six decades of the queen’s reign, starts with her difficult ascension to the throne, stewarded by Churchill, after the sudden death of her father George VI.
Morgan and Daldry offer up a nuanced portrait of a woman who combines reserve with grit, an heiress to an ancient tradition who manages somehow to be thoroughly modern.
A woman very much plunged into a man’s world, she finds herself in the alien position of being of higher standing than her husband, treated with deference by the prime minister.
Central to Morgan’s narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Philip, which is more complex and passionate than the formal, sometimes stilted, image of the union served up for the public.
Foy, 32, is full of praise for Morgan’s achievement in taking a well-documented historical subject and fashioning it into a drama full of surprises, while resisting the temptation to be sensationalist or salacious.
At a recent press day in New York, Foy noted that while many people follow the royal family, “you forget who they are.”
Vanessa Kirby, who plays Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret, says Morgan was able to convey the difficulty of life as a royal by getting the cast to imagine in every scene having a stone in their shoe.
“There’s never just easy and lovely. He wants it to be difficult and gritty, and tough and hard,” the 28-year-old actress said.
George VI is played by Jared Harris, who is probably best known for his role as British financial officer Lane Pryce in the AMC drama series Mad Men.
Harris, 55, imagines being a royal as an invidious calling, an occupation with no real job description or authority.
“And at the same time they’re in this weird position where if they mess up, it can all be taken away,” he said.
“And they’ll be the ones who screwed up 1,000 years of British monarchy. Imagine -- you must be in a state of permanent anxiety and paranoia.”
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