Season 1, Episode 1 – Wolferton Splash
A lot of TV shows achieve greatness, but few ever achieve artistic excellence. In its first episode alone, The Crown manages to do the latter. On paper the concept of following Queen Elizabeth II’s reign doesn’t really inspire a lot of interest or appeal. Her reign doesn’t fall during a time of great war nor during a time of major political and social unrest in the country. If anything it was a time of wealth and development that solidified the UK as a major global influence both economically and culturally for modern times, so how interesting can this biopic really be? I admit that I had my doubts before watching the series, but The Crown is such an engrossing achievement that left me stunned at its incredible artistry.
The cast is, in a word, astonishing. Practically every line delivery and subtle expression speaks of endless depth and complexity behind their respective characters. These are not just actors playing pretend. These actors take their larger-than-life characters and make them feel so real and so authentic that it feels like you’ve been watching them for hours instead of just minutes. There is always an expectation of imitation in biopics, especially for such well-known figures. Some of the characters being portrayed in The Crown are still alive today, and it becomes difficult for any actor, no matter how accomplished, to convince you that they’re not just imitating the quirks, tones, and movements of the actual people they’re playing. The cast of The Crown, however, seem to do it so effortlessly, drawing you into their world so completely that you forget about the real-life people they’re portraying.
Writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry are clearly not interested in showing a highlight reel of these people’s lives, which is a common trapping that biopics (even long-form ones like this) fall into. Instead the whole point of the series, and why I think it’s so masterful, is to show how these characters face the situations that they find themselves in. It is not an analysis of who these people were, nor is it a theatrical dramatization of how these people probably reacted. It’s something far more simpler, and thus far more effective: it’s a drama that’s unconcerned with anything other than authenticity. Not authenticity in a historical or biographical sense, but authenticity in a deeply personal level.
These characters feel real because they’re written and acted in ways that can make you relate and empathize with them. A hesitation during a wedding that affects more than just your life, the stress of being back in the spotlight after years of thinking it was over, the emasculating notion that you’re married to someone far more important than you could ever be, and the deep sadness at realizing that this is probably the last Christmas holiday you’ll be spending with your family. These moments are so breathtakingly profound and so beautifully portrayed by the actors, and the episode is full of them. This provides such valuable insight as to who these people are that manages to say more than any emotionally-charged, five-minute long monologue ever could.
Although I’ve spoken at great length about the amazing cast, Jared Harris as King George VI takes front and center in the first episode. The episode primarily focuses on him as his disease progresses and he is tasked with preparing Elizabeth to take over his duties sooner rather than later. Jared Harris brilliantly portrays a man who is about to face his mortality and who has never been comfortable being in the spotlight due to his stutter. I imagine that my reviews of the next several episodes will be dedicated to praising this cast, but it really cannot be overemphasized as to how astonishing they are.
No review of such a lush and expensive biopic like The Crown is complete without at least acknowledging its production values. Of course, no expense is spared when it comes to such an ambitious project. The costumes, cinematography, and production design are all worthy of the royalty itself, much less a TV show production of this scale. But thankfully, I found myself not really caring all that much about the technicals of the series. It’s common for historical biopics to bring their production values front and center, which can sometimes distract from the actual story and characters. The Crown avoids this because the writing and performances take almost all of your attention instead of the big budget investment that the producers and executives have made. The show’s budget can be cut in half and I really wouldn’t care that much as long as it doesn’t stop them from producing such high quality content.
Netflix has been a serious competition to other content providers for years now, but they’ve always managed to fall short in some way. They’ve undoubtedly produced many great shows over the years, but nothing that really leaves a significant impact in such a crowded industry. The Crown, however, feels like the series that Netflix has been waiting for. It’s an ambitious drama that sits comfortably with other prestigious shows, and although I might be speaking a bit too early (I’ve only seen one episode after all), there is such a confidence in the show’s execution that leaves me confident with what’s to come next.