Netflix is clearly more addictive than laudanum. The Crown Season Two is flawlessly scripted, acted, shot, costumed and bejewelled with a performance by Claire Foy as HM The Queen that is quite simply majestic. The dignity, intelligence, vulnerability and prim certainty of an ‘ordinary christian’ is communicated with such nuance as is the ice in the veins when the monarchy is threatened.
Season Two interweaves the Suez Crisis, Profumo Scandal, JFK’s assassination and a succession of ambitious if flawed Prime Ministers with family affairs: the marriage of Princess Margaret to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the spectre of the Duke of Windsor returning to England, the Duke of Edinburgh’s alleged infidelities and his fatal error in sending sensitive Prince Charles to his Scottish alma mater Gordonstoun.
The Gordonstoun episode allowed two talented young actors to show their chops: Julian Baring as Prince Charles and the extraordinary Finn Elliot as the young Prince Philip in flashback. Matt Smith is fearless in describing the complexity of the Duke of Edinburgh’s character: an alpha male put into petticoats by palace flunkies and emasculated by his wife’s seniority.
I did happen to know about Prince Philip’s youth from Hugo Vickers’ excellent biography of his mother Princess Alice of Greece. The poor chap was exiled and practically orphaned when his mother was institutionalised and his father ran away to Monaco with a dancer. Gordonstoun became his school of hard – if not cruel – knocks that instilled in him a discipline and physical strength that would scar Prince Charles for life.
One of the most affecting scenes was the recreation of the death of Prince Philip’s favourite sister and most of her family in a plane crash and the Nazi state funeral that he was forced to walk ahead of alone with echoes of Prince Harry following his mother’s cortege. The historians and monarchists have been up in arms at the suggestion that Prince Phillip’s feckless father blamed the boy for the deaths. I admit to being uncomfortable on behalf of the living but was immersed in The Crown and unable to step away morally.
Prince Phillip emerges as a petulant man and The Queen a pragmatist within the marriage. His connection with Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler and John Profumo was embroidered for the drama but entirely plausible in the scandalous 60s climate when the age of deference died. Claire Foy makes HM entirely sympathetic as she negotiates public criticism for behaving precisely as she was raised to do so. It is she rather than Prince Philip who took the decision to ‘adapt or die’. She didn’t like it but she took a point of view.
I cannot praise Alex Jennings highly enough as the embittered, selfish and deluded Duke of Windsor whose story as a Nazi sympathiser and traitor is told without varnish or mercy. Watching Greg Wise as ‘Uncle Dickie’ Mountbatten was so uncannily accurate and particularly poignant in his scenes with the young Prince Charles for whom he was a kindly father figure and mentor. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and his execrable wife Lady Dorothy are stitched-up like kippers.
It is Foy and Smith’s compliment that they didn’t allow Vanessa Kirby and Matthew Goode to entirely steal Season Two as Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon. Kirby is such a slow burn of brittleness, frustration and sex drive. Bisexual, snake-hipped smoothie chops photographer Snowdon swings with the best of them and is sinfully seductive. Snowdon and Margaret were a metaphor for the rebellion and the desire to cling onto a privileged life that characterised Swinging London. Call it having one’s cake and eating it.
Much comment has been made about the sex scenes between Margaret and Tony. I thought them rather tastefully done and set-up the ensuing bitterness within the marriage when passion was spent and Tony’s manipulation of Margaret’s arrogance and insecurities cut so deeply. I thought The Crown Season Two very cleverly explored the hypocrisy of Margaret, Tony and to some extent Prince Philip pecking at the gilded cage while the majority of British working people lived rather grim lives.
Victoria Hamilton as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother isn’t given the opportunity to develop as anything more than a privileged, peevish woman raging against the end of absolute monarchy. There is a scene where Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and HM prepare to meet a delegation of ‘ordinary people’ at Buckingham Palace that simply does not ring true. It ends with both royal ladies disdainfully pulling on their kid gloves.
I doubt very much that The Queen ever disdained to meet her people or felt blackmailed into letting a little light in on the magic. The televising of the Queen’s speech was a sensible decision entirely in step with technology as was ending presentation at Court, shaking ever more hands and sallying forth into the Commonwealth to pour oil on troubled waters.
By far the most affecting cameo came from First Lady Jackie Kennedy giving Claire Foy the opportunity to show HM’s gamesmanship and steel. JFK and Jackie are portrayed as ruthless opportunists living on lust for power, opportunism and ‘vitamin’ shots administered by Dr Feelgood. With a sense of mischief and manipulation of rank, The Queen grants Jackie an audience who wants to apologise for cruel comments said in jest. Jackie’s apology is rather heart-breaking in the whispery, sly little girl voice and The Queen’s response magnificent. As far as The Crown Season Two is concerned, Claire Foy reigns and entirely rules.