To get the obvious out of the way, “The Crown” is gorgeously produced, impeccably cast and deals with a tantalizing period in British history. It is also grindingly slow, and occasionally feels like it’s recycling material previously covered in other movies and miniseries.
The good outweighs the disclaimers, in a project that oozes class from every pore. The 10-episode series should fill a bit of the void left among those pining for “Downton Abbey,” even if this is all upstairs, no downstairs, and doesn’t attain that level of soapy addictiveness.
Writer-producer Peter Morgan – whose credits include “The Queen” – has contributed to the high bar surrounding dramatic treatment of the Royal Family in and around this historical window, ranging from “The King’s Speech” to the TV movies “Into the Storm” and “The Queen’s Sister.” Those expectations prevent this Netflix show from being an unqualified crowning achievement.
The series opens with King George VI (Jared Harris) still on the throne, but his health is failing. His eventual death elevates 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth (Claire Foy), who is quickly told that the person she was no longer exists. (Fortunately, flashbacks keep George – and Harris – in the picture, augmenting the outstanding ensemble.)
In subsequent episodes (and the entire run was viewed), Elizabeth’s new life is largely defined by a trio of major relationships: Her husband Philip (“Doctor Who’s” Matt Smith), who chafes at their revised circumstances; the curmudgeonly Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), whose vitality is fading; and younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), a freer spirit, who inconveniently falls in love with Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a significantly older and, scandalously, divorced officer who had been her father’s right hand.
The palace and parliamentary intrigue leaves Elizabeth largely controlled by her staff, while her hubby petulantly complains, “Are you my wife, or my queen?” Leaping about in time, the episodes chronicle various events from those years, such as the choking “great smog” that hovered over London, and her uncle Edward (Alex Jennings) abdicating the throne to be with Wallis Simpson, forever changing a host of lives.
It’s all played with the stiffest of upper lips, which can be somewhat confining, dramatically speaking – perhaps foremost for Foy, a terrific actress who must convey quite a lot merely with pained expressions. It’s so meticulous in replicating the era – primarily the 1940s and ’50s – as to risk feeling like a museum piece.
Because of that dynamic, “The Crown” doesn’t lend itself to binge viewing in the way many Netflix dramas do. In fact, the music, with a theme by composer Hans Zimmer, at times becomes overbearing, as if trying to create a sense of urgency that the storytelling only sporadically possesses.
Adopting a broader view, “The Crown” is such a prestigious package that it reflects well on Netflix, the sort of lavish offering – of the “It’s not TV” variety – that only HBO, and in this context PBS’ “Masterpiece,” would undertake. By exploring the British Monarchy, it also mines a queen-mother-lode of material that’s catnip in terms of media attention, promoting the streaming service beyond its actual viewership.
As the starched collars around Buckingham Palace would likely mutter in agreement, from that perspective, just maintaining the appearance of being regal can be half the battle.
“The Crown” premieres November 4 on Netflix.