Friday, 7 February 2020

TV review: The Crown, season 1, Netflix (2016)

You wonder how the directors manage to keep finding original ways to show people entering rooms accompanied by footmen, or getting out of large, black cars in front of grand, Italianate buildings.

One reason why espionage and crime make good material for TV and movies is because they are inherently cinematic; there’s always lots of physical stuff happening that can be used to develop character or to progress the plot. I fear that royalty is not in the same class of thing. One scene, for example, shows Princess Margaret arriving in a car at Buckingham Palace with the camera mounted above her, near the ceiling of the entryway. The filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to mix things up, and this scene is evidence of the kinds of tactics they felt constrained to use.

And as TV and movies get longer and longer the danger is that you lose the snappy resolution and instead just get lingering shots of people sitting in rooms. In this sense, both types of production are tending to become more and more like soap operas, cultural goods where endless quantities of time are used for the most trivial aspects of the hero’s or the heroine’s fictional existence. Lighting a cigarette becomes freighted with meaning, or greeting your horse with a pat. Every roll of the eyes or turn of the head becomes material for dramatic art.

There are a number of different directors used for this very good series but the constant seems to be the writing of Peter Morgan, which is uniformly strong despite the fat that enters the equation once you have converted those long minutes of each episode into establishing shots and other types of action. Slow pace seems, these days, to equate with quality.

I would have to say that if the whole thing has a theme, it must be the problem of living a good life when your options are constrained. In our modern world, where religion is more relevant than it has been at any time since the 17th century, this kind of story can have universal applicability. So Elizabeth II is not so much exceptional as typical, although not everyone gets to run their own horse in the races or to spend a summer weekend at their own personal estate in Scotland.

Season 1 covers the history of Elizabeth from the time of her father’s death until the time of the appointment of Anthony Eden as prime minister. Because not all the action centres strictly on Elizabeth, perhaps a better title for the series would have been “The Royal Family”, but this is a minor quibble to make. Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill do well but it’s hard to know if that is due to the writing or to the acting.

They are given a run for their money by Matt Smith as Prince Philip, a creature that chafes at its bridle and that provides a good many dramatic moments in what might otherwise have been a stale narrative. Philip’s outspokenness and idiosyncrasy are brought to the fore in an illuminating manner, telling us new things that are corroborated by direct experience.

The way that the monarchy has modernised under Elizabeth warrants emphasis. I felt many thrilling moments while watching these programs.

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