THE CROWN: SEASON ONE - Blu-ray (Left Bank/Sony Pictures, 2016) Sony Home Entertainment
Few ventures in human endeavor can justly rank as pivotal, turbulent, and, as challenging as those possessed by the British monarchy of the 20th century. Those who have only known a time under the reign of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II will likely take comfort that as the sovereign herself tips the scales at age 91, effectively having ruled longer than any of her predecessors, she continues to captivate, not only the hearts and minds of that tiny isle where Imperial rule has managed to weather many a grave and vindictive storm cloud invigorated by the winds of change, but equally to hold an audience in the world at large, compelled by her fortitude, vigor and, in more recent times, candor – the likes of which no predeceased monarch would have engaged in, much less entertained. The intrigues, foibles, follies and machinations to have shaped Elizabeth’s time are on full display in Peter Morgan’s The Crown (2016-present); among of the most masterfully told productions to have emerged from the BBC (produced in an alliance between Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television for Netflix). Whether considering Claire Foy’s uncanny and miraculously sustained transformation from HRH Princess Elizabeth, majestically morphed into HM Queen Elizabeth II, Vanessa Kirby’s passionate rendition of her more flamboyant sister, Princess Margaret or John Lithgow’s extraordinarily heartbreaking, frequently caustic, yet bitterly graceful portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, The Crown steadily evolves into precisely the sort of melodrama about royalty, made heartily robust with all the fire an music one could hope to witness secondhand.
Morgan has assembled a superb roster of talent to tell his tale: the standouts (and there are many) - Matt (Dr. Who) Smith, as the lanky embodiment of a feisty Prince Philip, Duke of Edinborough, whose rank and title were foisted upon him to expunge his Greek heritage from the public record; the ever-superb Pip Torrens as the Queen’s resolute private secretary, Tommy Lascelles; Alex Jennings (who seems to have a yen for dallying with the royals, previously playing Prince Charles in Stephen Frear’s 2006 adaptation of Morgan’s The Queen) herein, cast as the much-beloved (at least, by the people), though socially disgraced Edward, Duke of Windsor, having abdicated the throne to marry the woman he loved, thrice-divorcee Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams, eerily on point as his paramour). Intermittently scripted by Philip Martin, Benjamin Caron, Stephen Daldry, Julian Jarrold and Philippa Lowthrope, and immaculately photographed by Adriano Goldman, Stuart Howell and Ole Bratt Birkeland, to say nothing of Hans Zimmer’s epic underscore, married to the work of a small behind-the-scenes army achieving impeccable verisimilitude, The Crown: Season One rises above the accoutrements of traditionally well-crafted BBC product to emerge as something of a testament to one of the most covered – yet, perhaps entirely misunderstood – women in the world.
From top to bottom, The Crown is a tour de force. Morgan’s command of the English language, not to mention the girth of his research and appreciation for his subject matter affords him the opportunities to play fast and loose with the narrative timeline of this hypnotic period piece. Virtually all of the episodes are set in the hypothetical ‘present’ – Elizabeth on the cusp of assuming her royal duties after the death of her father, King George VI (Jared Harris), enjoying indiscriminate romps into the not-so-distant past when Elizabeth and Margaret were children, carefree and at play within the palace walls, completely unaware of how a singularly remarkable gesture by the would-be sovereign would unexpectedly alter the course of their impressionable youth forever, and, shape a national destiny that no historian could have foretold.
The Crown begins with Episode 1, Wolferton Splash: set in 1947 as Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark renounces his royal titles to wed the Princess Elizabeth; the eldest daughter of King George VI. Unaware of the King’s grave condition (he is dying of coronary thrombosis), a medical certainty kept hidden even from him by his doctors (having already removed one cancerous lung, only to discover the other well-advanced with similar tumors), the newlyweds return to Malta where Philip assumes command of the Royal Navy while Elizabeth gives birth to Charles and Anne. In 1951, the couple returns to London to be with the family as the King undergoes surgery for lung cancer. For the briefest wrinkle in time the King – affectionately known to his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Victoria Hamilton) and mother, Queen Mary (Aileen Atkins) as ‘Bertie’, enjoys restorative health. Alas, the soot and dampness of London, and draftiness of old castles alike, not to mention the George’s penchant for chain-smoking cigarettes, reveal a reoccurrence of his illness. Informed by his loyal physician, Dr. Weir (James Laurenson) he has mere months to live, the King gingerly counsels Philip on his looming duties to the woman he has married, but must now renounce as mere flesh and blood and come to regard as ‘the Queen’; a station exalted and ordained by the will of God. In tandem with this pending uncertainty in the royal house, there arrives the forbearance of a relic from another epoch: as former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill marks a startling return to No. 10 Downing Street after six years of Labor Party government. Churchill’s ever-devoted wife, Clementine - ‘Clemmie’ for short, (Harriet Walter) is as weary of what the aged-crust of prejudice against her husband in the House of Commons will do to his increasingly fragile health as she is protective of Winston’s legacy.
In Episode #2, Hyde Park Corner, we reach the inevitable turning point in Elizabeth’s young life; gingerly sent by her dying father, along with Philip, on an extensive tour of the Commonwealth in 1952. The couple is given a lavish reception everywhere they go and enjoy their last taste of freedom, experiencing the African tundra and wetlands firsthand. News arrives by telegram from London. The King has died in his sleep. The Queen, Margaret, and widowed mother, Queen Mary are inconsolable at the loss. Elizabeth, however, is rather circumspect; her years of rigid training in royal protocol having effectively whittled any great surge of emotion from the content of her character. As the nation prepares for the ceremonial funeral, Philip becomes increasingly aware he has blundered into a situation where he can never prove himself as his own man. Like the others, his independence is to be sacrificed in service to ‘the Queen’.
In Episode #3, Windsor, we learn a good deal more about the private animosities the royal house harbors against the Duke of Windsor. Indeed, 17 years after his abdication, Edward realizes he is still held responsible for having disgraced the household by choosing to live, and later marry the thrice-divorced, Wallis Simpson. The couple has since lived abroad in Paris on a royal allowance the Queen Mother threatens to cut off. She also absolutely forbids Wallis to return to London to accompany her husband to Bertie’s funeral. Even Queen Mary cannot surrender her bitter contempt for Edward. Reluctantly, Edward is granted permission to attend his brother’s funeral He regards his former family as a morgue of embalmed royal corpses; cruel and vindictive. Meanwhile, the pending Queen meets with Winston Churchill to discuss her husband’s requests; vestures of his feeble attempt to hold on to something sacred for himself. Hoping against hope to keep the name ‘Mountbatten’ and remain at Clarence House, a fashionable estate newly redecorated by him, instead of relocating to Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth’s resolve on these promises made to Philip buckles under the weight of the Prime Minister’s reluctance to bow to either query. The other bone of contention arises when Churchill delays Elizabeth’s coronation for one whole year as he toggles to secure his position against his own party, eager for Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (James Norton) to succeed him.
Episode #4, Act of God, begins innocuously enough with Philip, determined to take flying lessons from the dashing Air Force Group Captain, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), presently embroiled in a scandalous affair with Princess Margaret. But quickly, attention shifts to a watershed moment in English history oft made a mere footnote in the history books: the nightmarish December 1952 sulfur-infused smog that descended upon London, killing thousands with its noxious toxicity. For nine days this smog obliterated the sun, regarded by parliament as an ‘act of God’ to pressure Churchill to step down as Prime Minister. Exacerbating longstanding respiratory conditions, as well as indiscriminatingly decimating both young and old with its lethal deadliness, the smog terrorizes the city like the plagues of old. Churchill’s postwar governance seems ill-equipped to handle the panic: his warrior-like stance against enemies (even, his friends), refusing to bend to any notion of a resignation. Churchill is working against the hands of time, frequently caught napping in public and, even when awake, a very caustic lion, indeed; chafing at his cabinet who suggest the smog is a curse upon his administration. Forced to care for a flat-mate afflicted by the effects of the smog, Churchill’s favorite fresh-faced young secretary, Venetia Scott (Kate Phillips) is struck down in the streets by a double-decker bus en route from the hospital. Her loss proves the catalyst for Churchill’s impassioned declaration in the press; a promise made and kept of sweeping reforms to prevent another smog from ever again afflicting London. Inspired by his fortitude, Elizabeth resists the advice of her ministers to ask for Churchill’s resignation.
In Episode #5, Smoke and Mirrors, Queen Mary expires peacefully in her sleep. It is March 1953, and Mary’s passing stirs the acrimony between Edward and the royals once more. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, her Private Secretary Tommy Lascelles all but makes it impossible for Edward to attend her royal coronation. Bitterly, Edward retreats to France. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be monarch breaks with tradition, ruffling more than a few feathers along the way, when she insists Philip be made Chairman of her Coronation Planning Committee. Recognizing that in order to remain relevant in a world fast spinning out of control the monarchy must also make concessions, modernizing and streamlining the process by which they are perceived to govern, Philip encourages Elizabeth to allow the Westminster Abbey ceremony to be televised; an anathema to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Ronald Pickup) who eventually relents. Nevertheless, Elizabeth will not allow Philip to forgo kneeling before her as she is crowned. He resists, but eventually follows this time-honored protocol, creating a distinct rift in their marriage. From his villa outside of Paris, Edward and Wallis view the coronation with a gaggle of their fair-weather friends, Edward publicly mocking the ceremony, but secretly admiring Elizabeth from afar.
In Episode #6, Gelignite, Margaret reveals the extent of her passion for Peter Townsend, inviting Elizabeth and Philip to dine with them, and, finally beseeching Elizabeth to grant them permission to marry. Unaware of the entanglement to result from this seemingly innocent act of true love, the Queen freely agrees to her sister’s happiness. She is quickly advised on the epic misfire of keeping such a promise by Lascelles and The Queen Mother. Alas, having found out the affair, the newspapers transform it into the whirlwind romance of the decade. The British people are with Margaret and Townsend. Regrettably, Elizabeth begins to resent Margaret’s notoriety and popularity overshadowing her own. She is also made acutely aware of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. This expressly prohibits Margaret from marrying without royal consent until she is twenty-five. Having successfully delayed Margaret’s plans to wed for two years, Elizabeth and Philip attempt to soften the blow by taking Townsend, previously posted as a cultural attaché in Brussels, with them on a trip to Northern Ireland. Again, this act of benevolence backfires when Townsend – not the royal couple – becomes the intense focus by the press. Lascelles cruelly preys upon Elizabeth’s insecurity, recommending Townsend be shipped off to Brussels sooner than promised. Recognizing the real reason for this exile, Margaret becomes temporarily estranged from Elizabeth. She remains wholly committed to wedding Peter upon her twenty-fifth birthday. Time passes.
In Episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est, prompted by the Soviet Union’s atomic experiments, Churchill calls for an International Summit with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Buckingham Palace prepares for this lavish state dinner plans for the Anglo-American alliance are inadvertently derailed when Churchill suffers a series of strokes. Concealing the true nature of his infirmity from the Queen, Churchill convalesces while Lord Salisbury (Clive Francis) performs the necessary damage control. Meanwhile, Elizabeth considers Lascelles’ retirement. Senior Deputy Michael Adeane (Will Keen) is the natural successor. But the Queen prefers the more open-minded and congenial, Martin Charteris (Harry Hatton-Paton). Determined she should be better acquainted in the art of diplomacy and politics the Queen engages Professor Hogg (Alan Williams) to improve her knowledge of science and other related subjects. Alas, Hogg quickly deduces Her Majesty’s tutelage thus far leaves much to be desired. She never graduated from any accredited school and is, in point of fact, rather ignorant in matters outside of her narrowly construed instruction on how to be the perfect figurehead. Gingerly, the real process of higher learning begins. Infused with newfound confidence, the Queen gives both Churchill and Salisbury a dressing down for lying to her about the Prime Minister’s health.
In Episode #8, Pride and Joy, Margaret is appointed by her sister to take on several royal engagements while the Queen and Philip begin a rather strained tour of the Commonwealth. In the meantime, the Queen Mother heads to Scotland to reflect on her new position. In the process she is shown a dilapidated castle nestled on the moors and elects to buy it. Unbeknownst to everyone, Elizabeth suspects Philip’s revelry in the hours he frequently spends apart from her are leading him astray. In their first royal row as husband and wife, the Queen is startled to discover the press nearby, poised for a photo-op. Appealing to the reporters she is spared the embarrassment of a public scandal in the papers after one of the reporters dutifully surrenders the film in his camera with his apologies. Martin presides over Margaret’s planned address during her first royal engagement at home. Instead, Margaret elects to depart from her scripted speech. Her monologue, half tongue-in-cheek and devil-may-care is appreciated by the attendees, who are delighted by her candor and glibness, and the press, who waste no time splashing the particulars across their front pages. Elizabeth is furious. Once again, her sister’s escapades have outshone her. Churchill intervenes, informing Margaret she will not be allowed to take on any more royal engagements.
In Episode #9, Assassins, the Queen is unnerved by her husband’s flagrant absence from the family home. In reply, she begins spending more time with Lord Porchester (Joseph Kloska); affectionately nicknamed ‘Porchey’. Porchester is a professional horse breeder, and one-time aspiring love interest who encourages the Queen to put one of her racing thoroughbreds out to stud. Philip is slightly jealous of his wife’s innocuous interactions with Lord Porchester. Later in the evening he bluntly suggests Elizabeth ought to have married Porchester instead of him. Elizabeth concurs that the lord’s temperament would have been better suited for the royal duties Philip now takes disdainfully for granted. But the Queen sets her husband straight. For better or worse, he is the only man she has ever truly loved. And even now, despite his suspected dalliances, she continues in these affections. As the royals prepare to attend Churchill’s eightieth birthday dinner, Philip sheepishly mouths his apology to Elizabeth from across the table. Alas, Churchill’s elation is deflated when he is assigned a relatively unheard of contemporary artist, Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane) to commission his professional portrait. During their sittings, Churchill gets to know Sutherland better. The two men share in the loss of a young child; Sutherland’s son, and Churchill’s fifth daughter. As part of his birthday gala, Churchill addresses Parliament, unveiling the portrait he has never seen but quickly comes to regard as a total betrayal. Sutherland bitterly reminds Churchill that the portrait accurately captures the true ravages of time he is unwilling to concede. Reluctantly, and sometime later on secret instructions, Clementine has the portrait destroyed in a bonfire at their country estate.
The Crown: Season 1 concludes with Episode #10, Gloriana. It is 1956 and the Queen struggles to remain true to the promise made to Margaret regarding her engagement to Peter Townsend. While the public and press have branded it the romance of the decade, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Parliament disavow any such hope for marriage. The Princess cannot be allowed to wed the previously divorced Townsend, even though he was blameless in that first marriage. Elizabeth gingerly tries to dissuade Margaret from pursuing their relationship. Meanwhile, the Queen Mother grows impatient with Philip’s domineering attitude toward Charles. The boy is sensitive. But Philip cruelly regards Charles as weak. Again, in search of a project to occupy her husband’s time and energies, Elizabeth asks Philip to open the Summer Olympics in Melbourne. Later, a five-month tour aboard the newly commissioned Britannia is added to his itinerary. Churchill reluctantly confides in Clemmie; the time has come to step down from public service. As Edens prepares to replace Churchill he is still plagued by his own health issues and a growing dependency on injections to alleviate his pain; aggravated by a raging dispute with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser over rights to the Suez Canal. The episode ends with Philip’s departure, the Queen’s further isolation in Buckingham Palace and the newsreel of Nasser railing against the West, suddenly caught and burnt in the projector as Edens helplessly looks on.
The Crown is superbly conceived. As with the very best of BBC Productions, its strengths are primarily the creation of a sustained climate of intrigue that never translates into the sort of ‘in-your-face’ heavy-handed melodrama readily afflicting movies and TV produced in America. Sony’s participation here seems more financial than creative, affording Peter Morgan and Left Bank Pictures the reigns to evolve their riveting narratives. Arguably, the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II need no embellishment. And, indeed, the affinity for remaining steadfast and true to the real biographical facts (with minor caveats) has been highly praised by both the critics and royal biographers/historians, whose job it is to document such accuracy for posterity. The Crown is currently in Season Two on Netflix. But the series is planned to incorporate 60, one-hour-long episodes, spread over six seasons. Interiors were shot at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire with various locations throughout the United Kingdom. Owed and afforded widespread critical acclaim, The Crown: Season One took home Screen Actors Guild Awards for Claire Foy and John Lithgow. It also received 13 Emmy nominations, including one for Most Outstanding Drama Series. There is not much more to be said of it. The Crown is an enveloping drama with few equals. Once hooked, you are unlikely to put it down or forget it.
Sony Pictures Entertainment has released The Crown: Season One on Blu-ray, dividing episodes across 4 discs. Uniformly, picture quality is outstanding. Sony has proven time and again it remains at the forefront of digital mastering. The Crown was photographed digitally, so the leap to Blu-ray is almost a foregone conclusion. The lack of ‘film-based’ grain is complimented by a smooth digital sheen, exhibiting a startling amount of fine detail and superior color reproduction. Subtly photographed, this is an incredibly varied, textured and visually rich presentation. Black levels are solidly represented and skin tones acquire a natural pallor. The 1080p image exports a superior amount of information with pinpoint accuracy. There are no source anomalies or other encode flaws. This image is flawless and breathtaking!
The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is sublimely satisfying, full of directionalized SFX, robust music cues and properly placed dialogue. As most of the verbal badinage is uttered in restrained hush, such outbursts of conflict appear even more startling and potent. The aural ambiance extended to choral chants or wild cheering, the screech of cars and horses’ hooves galloping across pebbly ground, shotgun blasts during the hunting season, conspire to create sonic bursts as scintillating as any large-scale movie-going experience. The one grave misfire here is in the extras. Apart from a photo gallery we get absolutely nothing. No audio commentaries, no ‘making of’ featurette, no interviews with the stars…nothing. For shame! Oh well, can’t have everything, I suppose. For anyone’s money, The Crown: Season One will surely not disappoint. Buy today and treasure forever. What a great way to kick off the New Year!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)