As The Crown creeps closer to the present day, its apolitical approach is becoming more of a problem, writes Sam Brooks.
Minor spoilers for world history 1977-1990 follow.
Another year, another season of The Crown. Ten more hours that mythologise, lionise and tear down the British royal family in expensive fashion, with expensive fashions. The Windsor family drama has become appointment viewing, and the crown jewel (sorry) in Netflix’s often bloated original programming slate. This season will be met with particularly high hopes and anxious anticipation, given that it’s tackling one of recent history’s most beloved figures, Princess Diana, and one of its most controversial, Margaret Thatcher.
As always, you can’t fault the excellence of the production. Again this season, each episode functions as its own self-contained feature film, dramatising one historical event and using it as a way to show us the private side of an incredibly public family. The fourth season covers the Iron Lady’s election, Charles and Diana’s wedding (as you can see above, the dress is impeccably recreated), their subsequent tour of Australia and New Zealand, Michael Fagan breaking into Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom, and Thatcher’s ousting from parliament.
The season three cast return, and are just as good as last time: their performances are tremendous, finding unexpected corners of each character to play around in. Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth is looser and funnier this time around, which makes the moments where she suddenly, angrily, puts her heel down hit harder. Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip still has that rakish charm, spiky and dickish enough to never let you forget his misdeeds in season’s previous, while Josh O’Connor builds on Charles’ withdrawn shyness and serves us up an entitled, angry bully, lashing out when everybody around him correctly labels him as such.
However, the highlight once more is Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret. She’s even deeper, darker and sadder this time around, playing Margaret’s charm less as armour and more as a funeral shroud: she’s resigned to a life without purpose or meaning, and Bonham Carter crystallises that existence beautifully.
But every Crown stan has two questions: What about Diana? And to an understandably lesser extent, what about Thatcher?
As Diana, newcomer Emma Corrin is an unqualified triumph. Hers is one of the most difficult roles in the show so far: Whoever plays Diana not only has to look like Diana (which Corrin does, uncannily so), she has to capture Diana before she was a mononym, and also the Diana the entire world fell in love with. Corrin does this, charting the distance between the two with remarkable ease.
It’s to Corrin’s immense benefit that the series doesn’t canonise Diana; this is very much a human Diana with flaws, a Diana who yells and screams, and visibly struggles with her own place in the world. Peter Morgan, the series’ creator, also gives Diana a clear narrative arc. We’re introduced to her as very much the second fiddle to her sister while she’s courting Charles, and we get to see her grow until we get to that famous New York trip where she visited patients with AIDS, and began to truly self-actualise. This doesn’t benefit just Corrin as an actor, but the series as a whole: we don’t need another saint or another hero, we want to see all the messy stuff beneath the fairytale. On that note, Morgan makes the commendable choice to present Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) not as a homewrecker, but as someone who was a hell of a lot of fun, and easy to fall in love with. The choice works, and Fennell is a welcome breath of fresh air, firing on all acting cylinders.
On the other hand, Gillian Anderson’s take on Margaret Thatcher is a mixed bag. Anderson, whose career renaissance is largely a result of her ability to synthesize a patrician chill with disarming sensuality, is not a natural fit for the Iron Lady. She adopts a hunch, drops her voice a few octaves, and dons a tremendous wig, but her performance never stretches much further than caricature. It’s a rare misstep for a series that has managed to capture some of the most documented people of our day without stooping to pure mimicry. The performance is so jarring that even when Anderson eventually settles into the role and peels back the layers of steel that gild Thatcher, the damage is done, the caricature drawn.
While the casting is a problem, it’s not an insurmountable one. What dooms Anderson is The Crown’s bizarre attempts to show us a Thatcher that we haven’t seen before. By which I mean, this is the wettest-eyed Thatcher you’ll ever see. This is an Iron Lady whose eyes are regularly brimming with tears – a choice that reveals a bafflingly simplistic and naive understanding of the real Thatcher. The Crown has, often dubiously, gone to great lengths to shade in the sketches of these very public figures, to provide humanity where we’ve often only had headlines. Morgan’s choice to give us a binary Thatcher – stoic until she’s not, strong until she’s broken – is disappointing not just because it flattens out one of the 20th century’s most controversial figures, but because it fails to engage with the woman, or her politics, at all.
Morgan, who at this point has probably devoted more fictional words to this royal family than anybody else in history, subtly pivots this season of The Crown. While previous seasons were about interrogating the contemporary myth of the royal family, this one uses the family (with Thatcher as a clear outsider) to look at the ways gender intersects with the halls of power. This is done bluntly with the marketing – which sets Elizabeth, Diana and Thatcher in clear opposition to each other – but much more subtly within the actual series.
All three of these women are punished in some way, for the sheer act of being a woman. This is done most obviously with Thatcher. She’s surrounded by indistinguishable men from the previous generation, none of whom want to be told what to do by a woman. When she’s brought down, it’s made abundantly clear that it’s not just because of her unpopular policies: it’s because nobody likes her. For a man, that’s just a challenge. For a woman, it’s a political death sentence.
On the flipside, we’ve got Diana. Even though both she and Charles have affairs, it’s only Diana that is punished for doing so. When she relies on her charm, the only weapon she has in her arsenal to fight against a system that wants to make her irrelevant, Charles bullies her into submission. The Crown makes it clear: Charles whines, but Diana suffers, and will continue to do so as long as she’s part of this system.
Then there’s Elizabeth, whose rank is her only protection from her gender. Only by being, as Philip says late in the season, “the only person that matters, the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all our duty” is she protected from the kind of bullshit that plagues Thatcher and Diana, not to mention every other woman in the series. You can be princess or prime minister, but it won’t protect you from being a woman. Tying these women together gives the season a thematic backbone that the previous ones have been lacking, and it gives The Crown value beyond being a handsomely made document of a family that many of us are, frankly, too fascinated by.
So, it’s another season of The Crown, and another meticulously constructed run of television. But as time moves on, both in the series and in our real life, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the show can’t sit on the political fence. A feint towards feminism doesn’t solve that. The Crown’s success lies in its facade of apoliticism. Empathising with the royal family, even humanising and normalising their lives, is a political choice, and a conservative one at that.
The Crown made a choice by choosing to focus on Thatcher the woman, rather than Thatcher the politician. It’s an understandable choice, but a calculatedly safe one. While that might’ve worked when Morgan was tackling the likes of Churchill, who was basically bronzed in gold during his lifetime, and Harold McMillan, a Wikipedia footnote, it’s not going to work when it has to tackle the likes of Tony Blair. Those political deeds are still too fresh, and to approach them timidly will do the The Crown, its audience, and history itself a disservice. The Crown approaches the people it depicts bravely, rewriting their history and casting them in roles to suit the drama. If only it was so courageous in its approach to their politics.
Season four of The Crown is available on Netflix now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.