In a movie business filled with disappointing sequels and the rebirth of franchises barely buried, period dramas have remained a constant. From true-to-story, exquisite adaptations such as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice or Thomas Vinterberg’s moody 2015 Far From the Madding Crowd, to vast, sprawling masterclasses in colour and sound – of which Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a perfect example – it seems we rarely have to go unsatisfied for long.
And so, as television enters its heyday with a new litany of beautifully shot, written and acted dramas, it seems natural that the humble period drama would follow suit, being reborn into this new world of understated and nuanced programming. No longer content to be merely the fodder for a single woman’s Sunday evening (with perhaps Poldark as an exception, for obvious reasons), the period drama has become masterful and engaging outside of this designation. ITV’s Victoria and the BBC’s War and Peace stand as testament to this, the most recent products of a television trend surely kickstarted by the success of Downton Abbey. In their hands, characters were not merely the tropes of a Hardy novel, but rounded individuals with subtleties and stories worth telling. Therefore, it was only natural that Netflix soon followed suit, bringing the period drama to a new platform, and with it, a new audience.
Netflix, since it began creating its own ‘originals’ brand, has seemingly been bang on the money with their range and success rate. They gave us darkness and political grit with House of Cards, reinvented Marvel with Daredevil, AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and offered some levity with cute comedies like Love and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. So, in their turning to the period drama for their latest original, The Crown, it was only natural that they would do it to such a masterful degree.
The Crown, telling the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign and marriage to Phillip, is a triumph. Dramatic without the vamping of shows such as The Tudors or the CW’s Reign, The Crown draws its engaging storytelling from life. Brought to life and – embellished – certainly, but nevertheless true. It’s a strange beast, a period drama with a lot of its events still within the minds of the modern demographic, but it achieves a sort of distance, a separation from 20th century memory that gives it the ethereal glow of the period drama. With all the stylistic chicness of a Scandinavian drama and nuanced, understated performances to match, it doesn’t merely set the bar for the episodic period drama – it redefines it.
In the hands of its lead actress, Claire Foy, Her Majesty is imperfectly oxymoronic. Tender yet stoic, vulnerable yet unnervingly tenacious, the Queen becomes known to the show’s audience simply as Elizabeth, a woman of impossible character, for whom the burden and the privilege of the crown is thrown upon. Not only is she a newly crowned monarch, but she is a mother, sister, daughter, and wife. She’s pulled in a thousand directions at once, not least of all by her husband, Phillip. Played brilliantly by Matt Smith, he struggles with his allegiance to the crown and the instability it places upon his marriage – this constant dialogue between privacy and the public is the show’s greatest asset. Relationships are thrown into turmoil by journalists, women cannot grieve the loss of their husbands in front of the crowds, and it seems almost impossible to find the balance between duty and the need for one’s own space.
It’s this that the show does so well. The intrigue comes not from knowing the figures this show presents us with – but from precisely the opposite. The British monarchy is an entity that we are taught about from primary school age; we know their lifetimes, achievements, husbands, beheadings – and yet, really, we know nothing at all. The Crown is a subtle insight, heightened reality or not, into the lives of people whose reality is so entirely, utterly different. Whilst Pride and Prejudice might give us 200 years of distance with which to view the characters through, The Crown gives us less than 70. Yet beyond the clothes, the cars and the grainy black and white television shots, is a foreignness, an incomprehensibility which the show continually begins to disrupt. The Crown takes the figures we see everyday in print, but that still feel so very far from ourselves, and unpicks them. And so, in the same way a woman might find themselves in some parts of Elizabeth Bennet, they might just find some of themselves in Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown takes these gilded people and makes them human.
This, supported by a stellar ensemble cast, beautiful direction and writing, and gorgeous cinematography, creates a show that stands to be some of Netflix’s finest work. Widely remarked upon as being the platform’s most expensive investment, it would be far from my abilities as a writer to deem its worthiness. All that can be said is that as a body of work, The Crown stands before us as a testament to the power of the period drama, and to its ability to adapt with its audience. Gone is the stuffiness of old, and in its place stands some of the most refreshing, character-rich, emotionally engaging pieces we might hope to see.
The first series of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.