Review: Netflix Does Queen Elizabeth II in ‘The Crown,’ No Expense Spared


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Claire Foy as Elizabeth II in “The Crown,” beginning Friday on Netflix.

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Alex Bailey/Netflix

A pricey prestige drama about a British monarch? Should we prepare for an orgy of beheadings, sex scandals and battlefield brutality?

Well, no; just an orgy of sumptuous scenes and rich performances.

The series is “The Crown,” and the monarch is Elizabeth II, the very woman who sits on the British throne today. She’s not exactly the kind of hard-living, bloodthirsty ruler who makes for frothy television, and “The Crown,” a 10-part drama that becomes available Friday on Netflix, doesn’t try to pretend that she is. This is a thoughtful series that lingers over death rather than using it for shock value; one that finds its story lines in small power struggles rather than gruesome palace coups. Here, it takes an episode and a half just for George VI (Jared Harris) to cough himself to death so that Elizabeth (Claire Foy) can ascend to the throne.

Peter Morgan, creator and writer of the series, showed with “Frost/Nixon” and other works that history doesn’t have to be gory to make good drama. Here, a budget widely reported to be over $100 million helps him prove that again: “The Crown” looks expensive right from the start, investing its money in actors like John Lithgow, who makes a fine Winston Churchill, and in a wealth of historical detail.

The series focuses on the queen’s early years on the throne, but it begins before George’s death in 1952, when she was a princess leading a relatively carefree life with her husband, Prince Philip (Matt Smith). Their wedding in 1947 is lavishly rendered 12 minutes into the opening episode.

In less patient hands, the next five years would be condensed into five minutes, with George seen chain-smoking enough to make the point that cigarettes kill, then dying so that we could get on with Elizabeth’s story. But “The Crown” takes its time arriving at that sea-change moment, and the result is a delicate study in the power of breaking news then versus now.

Today, thanks to the internet and social media, everyone knows almost immediately when something major or even not so major happens. Five minutes after the death of a person of the king’s stature, the event would have been absorbed, the “praying for George” tweets would have been posted, and the snarky post-mortem would already be underway. “The Crown” lets you feel (or remember) what it was like when information moved more slowly. Elizabeth and Philip were on a world tour at the time. Just reaching her with word that she was now the queen was an ordeal, and in following that thread the series also conveys how the news rolled across the British Empire — a growing shock wave rather than a quick burst.

That’s the kind of treatment needed in a historical drama set in the 1950s, a decade that could not compete with the one immediately before or after it in terms of eventfulness. “The Crown” is not without its power struggles and scandals. Churchill, who reassumed the post of prime minister in 1951, was thought to be old and out of step even by some in his own party. Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Elizabeth’s sister, was having a dalliance with a married man, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles).

But these are relatively tame goings-on compared with some throne-based television fare. Like “Downton Abbey,” this is a series you watch to see actors being given the time to act, and to be reminded of or introduced to historical nuggets. Episode 4, for instance, involves the lethal fog that blanketed London in 1952, a haze of toxic pollutants that not only killed thousands of people but also had political ramifications. It’s easy for a writer to weave drama out of a war or an assassination. But out of fog? Kudos to Mr. Morgan.

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