'Uneasy is the head that wears the crown' is a terribly overused line. But in season 3 of The Crown, all 10 episodes now streaming on Netflix, the head is not just uneasy but unhappy, worried, bored and often unsure.
The Crown, a historical period drama on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is created by Peter Morgan who is also the principal writer. Season 1 covered the period from 1947-55 and saw the marriage and coronation of the new Queen, Churchill’s re-election as Prime Minister, and her sister Margret’s engagement with Peter Townsend being called off. Season 2 began in 1956 with the Suez crises and covered the period to the birth of Prince Edward in 1964.
Season 3 sees a new set of actors taking up the principal and supporting roles, with the exception of John Lithgow who has a cameo as Winston Churchill. Claire Foy portrayed the Queen in the first two seasons, with Matt Smith as Prince Philip, and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Olivia Colman will take over as the Queen for seasons 3 and 4, with Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret.
Amongst the most interesting new players are Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, Emerald Fennell as Camilla Shand (later Camilla Parker Bowles), Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten, and Jason Watkins and Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Season 3 covers a period of tremendous social unrest and an economic crisis in Great Britain that witnessed strikes, unemployment, poverty, and the devaluation of the pound. The world is modernising rapidly, science and technology advance and help humans land on the moon, and the royal family is repeatedly attacked by journalists for being anachronistic and irrelevant. Other historical events that season 3 covers are the discovery of the Queen's art adviser Sir Anthony Blunt as a KGB spy, the Aberfan disaster, Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales, and the death of Winston Churchill.
Meanwhile, within the walls of Buckingham Palace, there are uprisings from Prince Charles struggling to find his place within the rigid rules that govern his family while experiencing love and heartbreak for the first time. Princess Margret’s marriage to Lord Snowdown deteriorates, and Lord Mountbatten hatches plans of a coup after being asked to leave the Navy.
In fact there is no one really happy this season. Like the infamous London fog, the unhappiness and repression of England’s most famous family creep up on you slowly. You are introduced to Olivia Colman as the new queen with little fanfare, two different postage stamps and a few comments on ageing do the needful. While that’s brisk, the first four episodes that follow are anything but.
Just when you start wondering why it’s so slow, it hits you that this is exactly how life for the royal family must be. With no real jobs, goals or ambitions to be achieved, time must just slow down and make every day seem unbearable. In fact, the only jolly visual in the whole season is colourful jellies for children wobbling as they are rolled on a food cart and a teeny astronaut sitting upon a food cloche. It’s not surprising then that more than one member of the royal family faces as an existential crisis, stuck in their own version of Waiting for Godot.
Tobias Menzies is brilliant as the new, older Prince Philip who has never quite come to terms with playing second fiddle to his wife. Particularly memorable is his meeting with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. He hopes to experience adventure and euphoria vicariously through them but sadly soon realises that their reality is not very different from his own. As the Queen comments later, these are just three ordinary men condemned to forever being extraordinary by one event, living their lives in fishbowls, forever terrified of being disappointing.
The comparisons between the predicament of Prince Charles and the country of Wales maybe a little too on the nose but Josh O' Connor is heartbreakingly sincere and convincing as the neglected heir to the throne. Charles Dance last seen as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones is exceptional as the haughty Lord Mountbatten. I was so spellbound by his speech at a gathering of army veterans that I actually clapped spontaneously only to realise seconds later I was watching a TV show. Special mention to Derek Jacobi as the exiled Duke of Windsor, who finally finds closure after a life spent in exile and condemnation.
Helena Bonham Carter is a talented actor but is underused for most of the season. But if the last episode is anything to go by, we should be seeing much more of her. Olivia Colman perhaps looks more like the real Queen Elizabeth than Claire Foy, and portrays the character with restraint and maturity. But I couldn’t help but notice the nervousness and almost constant uncertainty in her eyes and the twitching of her mouth. Perhaps it’s a masterstroke to show that even after almost 25 years, she is not entirely comfortable in her role as Queen. There is a clever set-up of her reacting late at the time of a disaster that kills hundreds of innocent children, an allusion perhaps to the real Queen’s delayed response to Princess Diana’s death.
While its episodic nature makes it hard to relate to or really get too attached to any particular character, The Crown maintains a thematic unity with its previous seasons. The unnatural life that being a member of the royal family demands, the conflict between individualism and the institution, the suffocation of dreams and the desperation for purpose and most importantly, the need or role of the monarchy in a modern world. Is it just there to ‘paper the cracks’ and create the illusion of normalcy, to serve as an ideal for the common man and woman, or to be the fodder of myths and tales by remaining in a shroud of mystery? Can the monarchy, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson tells Queen Elizabeth, be everything to everyone and still be true to itself? It’s a question one hopes future seasons will answer.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.