It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been three years since we said goodbye to the original cast of Netflix drama The Crown. Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby were so believable in their roles of the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret that it was almost impossible to imagine anyone else taking over (writer Peter Morgan decided to change the cast every two seasons to reflect the passing decades). But now as The Crown enters its fourth series, it’s time to say goodbye to the second generation of cast members, and they certainly go out with a bang.
The new season opens in 1979 with the Queen (Olivia Colman) in her fifties, with her husband Prince Philip (played by Tobias Menzies) by her side, and their children now grown. The country is gripped by the Troubles, and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) has been elected Britain’s first female Prime Minister. While on paper the Queen and Prime Minister had a lot in common, it’s soon apparent hat the monarch had a somewhat different relationship with her eighth Prime Minister. Over ten episodes the series spans eleven years unto 1990, covering everything from the murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA, apartheid in South Africa, and, of course, the ill-fated marriage of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) to the young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin).
Peter Morgan has once again created an enthralling season from start to finish and what is sure to be considered one of the best dramas this year. All of the ingredients which have made The Crown such an iconic and well-loved drama are still there in abundance this season: gripping storylines are brought to life with the most beautiful cinematography and solid direction from Paul Whittington, Julian Jarrold, Benjamin Caron and Jessica Hobbs. Of course with most of the season set in the 1980s, there are some bold fashion choices (courtesy of costume designer Amy Roberts and her team), the wigs are bigger and there’s a classic soundtrack too.
There’s a lot to cover over the course of the eleven years, and as such Morgan has taken some liberties with the real-life timeline of events to suit his narrative, but it works. What makes the show so interesting is that it brings to light lesser-known stories from the time period. We find out about the intruder at Buckingham Palace who managed to enter the Queen’s bedroom, a surprise lunch between rivals Diana and Camilla ( the brilliant Emerald Fennell), and a dark family secret. We’re watching relatively recent history so there’s a great underlying tension as the show progresses and the action plays out, and as we watch the Prince and his new wife begin their ‘fairytale’ marriage, we know ultimately how it all ends.
The jewel in this series’ crown has always been the quality of acting talent and this year is certainly no exception with this season’s new additions. Younger royals Princes Edward and Andrew are given a little more screen time, and actors Angus Imrie and Tom Byrne do almost too good a job at showing off their self-entitlement.
Actress Emma Corrin is a breath of fresh air as the young Diana, lighting up the screen during the Princess’s happier moments and breaking hearts during the more turbulent times during her husband’s affair and her battle with bulimia (these scenes are sensitively handled, though not an easy watch). Of course she looks like the late Princess, but it’s also her voice and mannerisms – her wide, expressive eyes and shy glance under her sweeping fringe that Diana was known for – that really stand out. Corrin is utterly enchanting throughout and is totally believable as the young royal matures, captures hearts all around the world and has to live her life constantly in the shadow of Camilla. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is in direct contrast to the Queen, who’s more comfortable showing feelings towards her horses and dogs than her own children. With Elizabeth Debicki taking over as Diana in season 5, Corrin has set the bar extremely high and has certainly given a performance to remember.
When the casting for Margaret Thatcher was first announced last year, expectations were high and Gillian Anderson exceeds every single one of them with her performance, making her a dead cert for acting awards going forward. She is a triumph as Thatcher, capturing her voice, posture, mannerisms and exaggerated curtsies to such a chilling degree that for a brief moment you begin to wonder if the dead can rise again. She’s perfectly stoic, delivering each line with the perfect amount of iciness required, and her scenes with Olivia Colman are simply a masterclass in acting as you watch two greats step into the ring. Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures in modern history and perhaps Morgan’s portrayal of the Iron Lady will also divide opinions. The series offers a look at a woman who made it in a man’s world through hard work and determination, but one who doesn’t always sense – or care about – the mood of the country. She’s seen in the home and as a mother but she’s still not easy to relate to – she openly admits of a favourite child (Mark, played by Freddie Fox), and during her first disastrously awkward visit to Balmoral in episode two her inability to fit in (wearing high heels and a bright blue outfit to a stag hunt) makes even the royals seem like normal people.
In terms of the returning cast both Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies continue to impress, having both settled into their roles so well that it’s almost impossible to imagine the show without them (they’re handing the baton to acting greats Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce). The Queen and Philip are the constants this season, relaxed in both their roles and their marriage, and provide some of the more lighter moments (two words: Billy Joel). Erin Doherty stole the show during the last season and returns as the no-nonsense Princess Anne, who is experiencing her own marriage issues while observing those of her brother Charles.
If there’s a downside it’s that this season is somewhat devoid of Margaret at times (the Princess moved down the pecking order following the 21st birthday of Prince Edward). But thankfully when Helena Bonham Carter is on scene she shines, is fabulously upbeat during Margaret’s happier times, and utterly compelling during the Princess’s darker days. It’s Margaret who foresees issues with the Charles and Diana’s match, and the realisation that once again a royal has been denied their true love is brilliantly acted by the star.
Last season Josh O’Connor impressed as Prince Charles and this series he takes it up a notch. He captures the emotion of the Prince as he loses Lord Mountbatten, his father-figure and is shy and tender when he attracts Diana. But he shows a much darker, more fiery side of the Prince as he is overshadowed by his young wife, and is willing to put his marriage on the line to keep seeing Camilla. O’Connor has brilliant chemistry with both Emma Corrin and Emerald Fennel and sets the bar high for his predecessor.
Though the series is based on real historical events there is of course a little dramatic license thrown in for good measure. The Queen’s biographer, for example, claimed that Margaret Thatcher likened early visits to Balmoral to ‘purgatory’, but it seems unlikely that the royal family would be quite so cutting to her face, although it makes great television. Likewise there are one or two moments involving Diana which will certainly raise eyebrows. But ultimately this is a lavish and beautifully crafted show, with some breathtaking performances, and fans of The Crown are sure to be hooked. The series sets up season 5 brilliantly, in some ways feeling like the calm before the storm, and with Imelda Staunton taking over at the helm, the future of The Crown is certainly in safe hands.
The Crown is available to stream on Netflix from 15 November.
Photo credit: Netflix