Queen Elizabeth II may be the most famous person in the world whose goal is to be totally unknowable. Whether democratically elected politicians who need your vote or pop stars who need you to open your wallet, most everyone at her rarefied level lives, to some degree, by consent of the governed. Elizabeth exists comfortably in the knowledge that what you think of her doesn’t really matter. She’d likely rather you don’t think of her inner life at all.
It’s her isolation from the give-and-take of public discourse that makes her, notionally, an interesting subject for fiction. What’s she thinking—really?, one wonders, turning the question over and over like a well-worn pound coin bearing her serene, unemotional visage.
And yet Netflix’s new series The Crown proves that imagining an inner life for Elizabeth is far more compelling in theory than in practice. The show’s first season of a purportedly planned six perpetually places the young queen (Claire Foy, nailing a thick accent and making the best of thin motivation) in situations that bear the contours of rebellion, after which she eventually backs down in order to behave in the best interest of the monarchy’s continued existence. Most grievously, she reverses herself on the question of whether her sister, the vibrant Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, the show’s MVP), may marry a divorced man; the decision ruins the princess’s chance at love. (The real-life Margaret went on to marry the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Earl of Snowdon. The unhappy union ended in divorce.)
Why is the monarchy this terribly vital to the nation, particularly if its chief steward is both miserable in the job and so easily swayed? The best answer the show provides comes from Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), the grandmother of Elizabeth, who lectures the new sovereign: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Elizabeth blanches, but only a little; she abides by traditions of removing whatever might be her emotions from the equation. She strives to be a palatably bland vision of “greatness,” completely disconnected from the emotions or the concerns of her subjects.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan is responsible for two other works of fiction about Elizabeth, the play The Audience and the film The Queen. With The Crown, his apparent interest in the life of the sovereign crosses over into a passionate defense for an entire system of government. The monarchy is held up to the light and contemplated, but only fleetingly and delicately. Elizabeth is embarrassed when Prince Philip (Doctor Who star Matt Smith) fails to convey proper respect to their hosts on a visit to British Kenya, for instance. But the fact of British Kenya’s existence as a colony governed by people on another continent who really ought to be more polite when they drop by seems not to trouble her sleep, or the show’s glossily smooth forward march through the 1950s.
The Queen was similarly decorous toward authority, but it was aided by the limitations of moviemaking. Morgan could only do justice to a discrete period of time, and chose a period (the week of Princess Diana’s death) during which the Queen demonstrated her deepest weaknesses and greatest strengths. She was bound to traditions that had grown irrelevant—up until the moment that she managed to ever-so-slightly redirect the battleship of the monarchy, guaranteeing its survival. She’s no visionary, but she’s a very effective manager.
But over the course of The Crown’s first ten episodes, repeated such efforts to keep the ship of state on track grow wearying. Not every issue the young Regina faced, like whether to give her children her husband’s surname, rises to “Candle in the Wind 1997”-level drama. (An episode about the lethal London fog of 1952 is elegantly done, but focuses far more on the leadership qualities of John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill than those of the queen.) And for all that the show seems at every turn to set up conflict—Margaret, Prince Philip, and the abdicated Edward VIII (played well, as a threatening and destructive ghoul, by Alex Jennings) all forcefully pressure the queen to act against the monarchy’s best interests—the protagonist is just not very dynamic.
Just as Titanic couldn’t invent a world in which the ship stayed afloat, The Crown can’t make Philip and Margaret’s brazen and brilliant arguments against their queen’s adherence to duty take hold. She is who she is—determined to rise above the sort of drama that makes entertainment work. The show will be compared to Downton Abbey, but that late soap opera was able to invent ahistorical or at least unexpected notes of benevolence and wisdom among its upper-crust characters. Foy struggles mightily, but she’s given little: Avoiding her children, her husband, and her subjects in favor of meetings at which she either acquiesces to her advisors or puts off acquiescing until fifteen minutes later, The Crown’s Elizabeth is more than unknowable. She’s a bore. I wouldn’t last a dinner with her—what’s the argument for ten hours, or, in the fullness of time, sixty?
It’s worth noting quite how well-made The Crown is. Reportedly made at great expense, the series, with its rich and lavish interiors, serves as a beautiful tourist advertisement for Scotland in particular. (The royals have a residence there, as The Crown’s core audience surely already knows.) It comes at an apt time—as Brexit has confirmed an appetite among the Brits to embrace a nostalgic view of their nation’s unique greatness, disconnected from the world stage, why not wallow in royal ephemera, lovingly shot?
Never mind that the real-life royals, having somewhat faded in influence despite Elizabeth’s best efforts at stewardship, have recently made their biggest news in some time with the revelation that Prince Harry is reportedly dating an American actress. It’s something the Elizabeth of The Crown, unaware of what is to come in future, likely more riveting seasons, would surely not have sanctioned. The Crown, in its first season, won’t let itself have that much fun. But advertising’s pleasures, and nostalgia’s, fall short of those that can be conveyed by a really good story. At a certain point, I suspect money in entertainment comes to have its own momentum; a show with the potential to burn through seasons’ worth of the sort of money spent on season 1 is a show that in a very literal sense cannot afford to take risks.
But then, there’s not really a risk-taking, intriguing version of a life story that is subsumed by duty. Even in her own story, Elizabeth is a supporting player, denying Morgan narrative satisfaction. Even more than half a century after the coronation, with the power of the crown having vastly retreated, a writer who’s dedicated years of his creative life to Elizabeth can’t bring himself to imagine his story’s heroine being so gauche as to be interesting.