It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since the last season of The Crown. Peter Morgan’s historical drama chronicling the modern history of the United Kingdom as told through the point of view of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family became an instant hit for Netflix, and made stars out of both Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby, while the initially eyebrow raising casting of John Lithgow as Winston Churchill turned out to be a masterstroke, with Lithgow’s portrayal arguably being the best on-screen performance from any actor playing the famed Prime Minister.
With a six season plan in place, the idea locked into the heart of the series was that the main characters would be recast every two seasons to reflect the age of the characters which at first seemed to be a fantastic idea, although once Foy and Matt Smith’s performances as Elizabeth and Prince Philip became more acclaimed and popular with audiences, the more it seemed that such an idea was filled with risk, even if the recasting of those characters meant that Olivia Coleman and Tobias Menzies took over, with Helena Bonham Carter filling the void left by Kirby.
For the first five minutes of the season three premiere things do feel a little strange. The show is still the same, the production values are impeccable, there is the incredible use of locations that really sell the idea of this being Buckingham Palace, the influx of British historical detail, and that incredible Hans Zimmer theme music is still there carrying the audience into each episode, and yet the majority of the cast has changed faces. In fact, the series doesn’t even shy away from the fact that the series has replaced Claire Foy with a lovely moment of light comedy involving Colman’s Elizabeth having to choose the portrait of her to be included on the British Postage Stamp with a previous one featuring Foy’s face being presented right in front of her and the audience.
It’s a moment that could almost be a touch too much and yet it works brilliantly, and almost settles you into the fact that it is literally the same show just with different faces. This being a new season means we get a new Prime Minister with Harold Wilson played by Jason Watkins, and with it a new plethora of problems driven by a paranoid atmosphere brought about by the Cold War, a fear of Russia, communism and espionage, not to mention by the country having a frosty relationship with new US President, Lyndon B. Johnson.
On the basis of the first five episodes, the series has lost none of its drive, or its brilliant ability to combine historical drama with the well crafted soap opera that comes with life in the palace. One of the potential traps for a series like to this to fall into is for it to be the worst kind of soap opera; many previous films or television series that have portrayed the life of those in the Royal Family have fallen into the realm of cheap and cheesy.
There was the disastrous Diana starring Naomi Watts, not to mention several Lifetime movies portraying the romances between William and Kate and, most recently, Harry and Meghan, and yet Peter Morgan, who not only scripted the well-received The Queen which led to Helen Mirren winning an Academy Award, but also other dramas centred around modern British political history, and who has a wonderful ability to turn the Monarchy into the stars of a brilliant crafted soap that actually happened, but to filter their lives through the prism of British political history.
We never for one moment ever truly believe that the dialogue being delivered here are the words that passed between The Queen and the British Prime Ministers that we’ve seen her meeting with at various points in nearly every episode, but they work magnificently within the realms of a political drama. Even the other pitfall the series could fall into of centering itself around such a family who is affluent and powerful and rich never becomes problematic, instead sometimes opting to show Prince Philip, now performed with utter brilliance by Menzies, showing himself to be somewhat tone deaf in how he complains to the media about how hard the family has it, which of course they really don’t since they live in the palace and are provided for by the British tax payer.
The Crown scarcely puts a foot wrong this season despite the reservations one might have about the casting changes. The change of a cast member or two, or ten, really shouldn’t be a problem. Television and movies have thrived with cast changes over the years with two of the UK’s biggest slices of pop culture, Doctor Who and James Bond, turning such change of leading performers into part of their marketing campaigns that has helped sustain them for well over half a century, and yet one can get attached to performers in roles, it’s hard not to, but, like the The Doctor or 007, the casting changes here are to the strength of the series and not a weakness.
In fact, one could even make the argument that this season delivers the best instalment of The Crown’s three season run. Centred around the Aberfan disaster, the third episode of the season doesn’t shy away from the horror that befell the coal mining town in Wales and yet it is never played in a way that falls into exploitation, conveying the emotional devastation in a manner that is sensitively handled.
It’s an episode that also asks how a Head of State should deal with the emotional ramifications of such an event. Emotional reservation is very much at the heart of Queen Elizabeth’s character and it was a facet that Morgan also explored in The Queen, so it’s interesting that he has once again opted to explore how stiff a British stiff upper lip should be in the face of a national tragedy through such a prominent figure of the British establishment. Under other circumstances, one could say it is a sign of a writer repeating themselves, yet amazingly it works so well yet again, not least because it’s anchored to a performance from Olivia Colman that has up to this point been amazing but which here cements her tenure in the role and allows her to fully walk away from the shadow of Foy. The final image of Colman, a tear finally streaming down her cheek after having spent the episode’s run time questioning herself about her emotions is an undeniably powerful one.
What occurs to one about how great The Crown is during this third season is that while this is a different cast, you genuinely believe that these our the same characters that we’ve watched in the previous two seasons, and that’s not just because the series is telling us so, but because of how great the acting is from the ensemble. There’s an incredible sense of continuity in performance here that is hard to pinpoint exactly. Colman, Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels are putting their own spin on the performance here, but they also feel like they are genuinely the same characters that we’ve spent twenty episodes watching prior to this.
It’s a recasting experiment that works amazingly well, and that coupled with such superlative writing and production values, it helps to continue The Crown’s ability to be one of the very best shows in the Netflix pantheon as well as in the television landscape.