The Crown season five review – it’s time for this bitty, boring show to end forever
Too close to caricature … Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in The Crown.
Its cast is cartoonish, the plot is packed with dull speeches and multiple episodes could have been binned entirely. The royal drama has never been less relevant
Sat 5 Nov 2022 07.01 GMT
Six years ago, when Netflix debuted a plush, true-ish drama about the British royal family, it was a period saga set in the half-forgotten past, and a production with a direct link to modern times: incredibly, the woman we saw becoming Queen in 1952 was still on the throne. Season five of The Crown now arrives as the first to be shown since its protagonist’s death – and the show itself feels as if its time has come and gone.
The continuing documentation of the late Elizabeth II’s reign – we have reached the years 1992 to 1997 – is not the issue, since the end of her era in real life ought to increase the need for a complete dramatisation. Nor should the show’s increasing proximity to the present day present a problem for its writer, Peter Morgan, whose reputation pre-Crown was for finding new angles on statespeople’s recent exploits, the royals included. Yet these new episodes are bitty and often just boring, with Morgan casting around for side plots to hide the fact that everything he has to say about the Windsors has already been said.
For actors, too, the task has awkwardly evolved. An odd-numbered Crown season means a cast change, and the new one is landed with embodying the royals as anyone under 50 instinctively pictures them: the Queen (Imelda Staunton) old rather than middle-aged; Charles (Dominic West) toddling disaffectedly around with his left hand lodged in his jacket pocket; Philip (Jonathan Pryce) the vigorous pensioner flapping naysayers away with outsized hands and ears. The temptation to offer more of a party-piece impersonation than a believable character proves hard to resist.
At its best, The Crown is about flawed people coping imperfectly with cursed privilege, visiting unhappy personal lives upon themselves in the process. But there are only so many times we can see the Queen, whoever she’s played by, tell a family member they can’t marry this man or must remain married to that woman. Charles, Anne and Andrew get the lecture here, as does Margaret (Lesley Manville) when she revisits her feelings of frustration at not being allowed to stay with her true love, Peter Townsend.
The retreading of old ground feels forced, and this is not the only point at which a 10-part season is plugged with filler. An episode centred on Boris Yeltsin and the disinterring of the Romanovs, and particularly a standalone instalment about cartoonish aristocratic wannabe Mohamed al-Fayed, could have been binned without disrupting the main narrative too much.
The boldest of Morgan’s deviations from the palace action is his depiction of ordinary couples going through the same divorce court as Charles and Diana, their failing relationships imagined via short, sad sketches – the point being that all sorts of marriages end due to differences that in retrospect make the unions look doomed. However, this only underlines the difficulty season five has in finding fresh human drama. Near the end, with the decree nisi signed, Charles and Di’s final barney is the same as all the others: she says he was inattentive because he loved Camilla Parker-Bowles from the start; he says she was naive about royal priorities and turned vengeful when her unrealistic demands were not met. The ordinary people’s anguish is more interesting.
The more important stuff happens when C and D are apart. The real John Major – sympathetically portrayed here as a methodical, wise diplomat by Jonny Lee Miller – has already come out to decry the moment where Charles unsubtly suggests to the new prime minister that the royal family might also benefit from a different leader. It’s a just-acceptable fiction, putting into words something Charles was probably thinking while helping to set up the impassive Major as a cautious traditionalist who was always going to side with Elizabeth. But the scene points up that, rather than there being a rolling subtext of how change threatens the Windsors’ position, now the future of the monarchy is the main topic of discussion. Dramatically this is a dead end, leading to an awful lot of dry speeches where characters spell out what would be more effective as underlying themes. More than once the script resorts to an ageing, increasingly unviable edifice such as HMY Britannia, the decommissioning of which is the season’s framing device, being referred to directly in dialogue as “a metaphor”.
The big Di news, meanwhile, is her consenting to a television interview – Elizabeth Debicki, another performer leaning towards caricature, nails that coquettish Panorama head tilt. The fable of the dishonest Martin Bashir’s ignoble journalistic ambition meeting an unstable Diana’s desire to be heard, with that explosive mixture being ignited by personality clashes clouding judgments at the top of the BBC, is vintage Crown, recasting major public events as the result of relatable private foibles.
This, though, is a knack The Crown has largely lost. Without it, the show’s relevance is waning.
The Crown is on Netflix on 9 November.
‘The Crown’ Review: Tempus Horribilis
The fifth season of the Netflix hit, with a new cast including Imelda Staunton as the queen, depicts the royal family at its lowest point.
By Mike Hale
Nov. 9, 2022
Has “The Crown” fatigue set in for you yet? Peter Morgan’s popular vivisection of the British royal family, back for its fifth season on Netflix after a two-year wait, has consumed more than its share of pixels, including three feature articles in this newspaper. So we’ll try to keep it short.
The show’s new and final Queen Elizabeth II is Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake,” “Another Year”), and she is splendid. Playing the monarch in her late 60s, coping with the 1990s meltdown of the family’s public image, Staunton seems even more right for the role than her Emmy-winning predecessors, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman. (The season was filmed before Elizabeth’s death in September at the age of 96.)
It may help that she is playing an Elizabeth we’re more familiar with, facing tribulations many of us witnessed. Still, she combines warmth and unforced regality in a way that makes her the most human of the show’s queens. Her Elizabeth is dry-eyed and on guard, but the toll of the office is always apparent. Staunton is stunning in a moment near midseason when, after confronting a woman whose friendship with Prince Philip is a bit too close, Elizabeth almost lets a tear escape.
Staunton doesn’t get nearly as many vital moments as you would like, however. That’s partly because the season is focused on Charles and Diana, now played by Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki. But it’s also down to how Morgan, who scripted the entire season, writes episodes as self-contained morality tales, emphasizing the construction of complicated metaphors over the mundane business of building characters.
So Staunton fades away at times, to the show’s detriment. She doesn’t have much to do in an episode about outsiders that ties together Mohamed al-Fayed (a highly amusing Salim Daw); the Bahamian valet Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who worked for both Fayed and the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings, returning in a cameo); and Diana, who was later romantically involved with Fayed’s son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla).
Morgan’s predilection for allusion and allegory is stronger than ever in Season 5. Diana’s revenge interview with the shady journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) is linked, in elaborate fashion, with the Guy Fawkes plot, both of them attempts to set off bombs beneath the royal family. An episode is structured so that Elizabeth’s dealings with the Russian president Boris Yeltsin echo the cold war between her and Philip (Jonathan Pryce).
Morgan acknowledges this tendency — when satellite TV is finally installed at one of her castles, Elizabeth tells her grandson William (Senan West, Dominic West’s son, who’s quietly excellent), “Even the televisions are metaphors in this place.” If the somewhat static rewards of this literary approach are your cup of tea, along with the requisite obsessive attention to details of period production design, all may be fine.
But even when you take it on those terms, Season 5 doesn’t have the life, the hard snap, of “The Crown” at its best. And that’s where Charles and Diana come in.
West and Debicki are, in different ways, both fine in the roles. West isn’t like the Charles we know — he’s more charismatic, more obviously commanding — but he’s a strong, absorbing screen presence, as usual, and you understand why the show needed that. Debicki, on the other hand, gives an eerily accurate rendering of Diana’s physical and emotional affect and plays her in a recessive, watchful manner that holds your interest.
The problem is that Morgan hasn’t figured these characters out, and his writing for them isn’t as good or as moving as it has been for Elizabeth and Philip, or for Margaret (now Lesley Manville) and her assorted lovers. (This is obviously a contrarian view given the acclaim and awards showered on the Charles and Diana story line in Season 4.)
He presents the high points of the sad story — the scandals, the dueling interviews — with dramatic intelligence and a certain amount of stiff-upper-lip humor. But the two characters at the center remain opaque; Morgan resorts to the same shallow, sentimental notions of love gone sour and family inflexibility that were the stuff of public mythmaking.
The idea of practical calculation is floated but rejected with regard to both Diana and her rival, Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), presumably because the Princess Di story has to be a love story. But even as Morgan is telling us that’s what it is, it doesn’t feel like that’s what it is. The type of story that would really make sense of Charles and Diana would very likely have to be a wilder, harsher, more corrosive story than “The Crown” can afford to be.
Such a telling would probably trigger the supposed guardians of historical accuracy to an even greater extent than Morgan’s fictionalizations already do. History is, in general, the enemy of good storytelling, and Morgan can’t be blamed for putting words in people’s mouths; his characters are his, not ours, and many of the show’s best moments are those characters’ stirring, wholly invented lectures on one another’s bad behavior. (He and Netflix have ignored calls to add a disclaimer regarding dramatization.)
What’s actually interesting, from a historical standpoint, is how the show seems more fantastical even as it moves firmly into living memory. Given what we have lived through since the show’s premiere in 2016, the idea that these characters’ relatively prosaic misbehavior and benign recriminations could bring down the monarchy feels like a story from a distant and very different past.
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