Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: The Crown's a visual and artistic treat

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in a scene from the Netflix series, The Crown.
Claire Foy and Matt Smith in a scene from the Netflix series, The Crown.

When I was a kid I used to think the Queen was my Granny. Every time a letter arrived from Scotland it would come with Her Majesty's expressionless face attached to the top right corner of the envelope; being too young to properly understand either the monarchy or postage stamps, it was the only logical conclusion.

In my defence, both the Queen and my Granny did have the same hairstyle, and they were both the same age: old. They were old when I was little and they are still old now. Were they ever young? It hardly seems possible, but it must be true.

Elizabeth is 21 years old at the start of The Crown, the lavish, incredibly big-budget new Netflix bio-series released on Saturday - not to be confused with Victoria, the lavish, incredibly big-budget ITV bio-series about her great-great-grandmother currently screening Sunday nights on TVNZ 1.

The first of its ten episodes begins in 1947, with then Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Philip Mountbatten. Photo / Netflix
The first of its ten episodes begins in 1947, with then Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Philip Mountbatten. Photo / Netflix

The first of its ten episodes begins in 1947, with then Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Philip Mountbatten. The Navy lieutenant was a controversial choice of husband for the heir apparent: "You know why his three sisters aren't here," Winston Churchill splutters to his wife during the vows, "they're all married to Nazis. Prominent Nazis!"

Churchill, played by the inspiredly-cast American actor John Lithgow, features prominently in the first episode, and indeed throughout the series - the relationship between the United Kingdom's two heads of state is something the show's creator Peter Morgan explored in his 2013 stage play The Audience. Morgan also wrote the screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen, for which Dame Helen Mirren won almost every acting award under the sun.

Claire Foy has big shoes to fill as the younger Elizabeth, and she does a good job of capturing the future monarch's hesitating but headstrong character. Her gently trembling face as she struggles to recite her wedding vows to Philip (former Doctor Who timelord Matt Smith) is not the only time the first episode zooms in on the vulnerability just underneath all the stiff upper lip formality.

Churchill, played by the inspiredly-cast American actor John Lithgow, features prominently in the first episode, and indeed throughout the series of The Crown. Photo / Netflix
Churchill, played by the inspiredly-cast American actor John Lithgow, features prominently in the first episode, and indeed throughout the series of The Crown. Photo / Netflix

Much of the show's first hour focuses not on Elizabeth but her father, King George VI - the one immortalised by Colin Firth in The King's Speech. Jared Harris is brilliant as the ailing leader, who spends much of the episode coughing his lungs out and spitting blood into tissues in between long, deep drags of a cigarette.

His emergency lung surgery in 1951 sets the wheels of succession in motion. Too sick to travel, he asks Elizabeth to undertake a tour of the Commonwealth on his behalf. "My work is as a naval officer," Philip grumbles when she extends the invitation to him, "not grinning like a demented ape while you cut ribbons."

The King gives his son-in-law a tune-up on a fog-covered pond while out duck hunting: "You understand the titles, the Dukedom ... they are not the job," he explains. "She is the job. She is the essence of your duty. Loving her, protecting her."

It takes a good dollop of dramatic license here and there, for sure, but by the end of the first episode the story has gathered a satisfying momentum.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Jared Harris as King George VI in The Crown. Photo / Netflix
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Jared Harris as King George VI in The Crown. Photo / Netflix

Visually The Crown is a treat - practically every scene is like an oil painting come to life. Fortunately it also has the across-the-board compelling performances and assured writing necessary to ensure that stunning scenery doesn't count for nothing.

Fortunate, too, because the most expensive Netflix production to date has already been commissioned for a second series.

The first series spans the period 1947 to 1954; the ambitious, maybe totally deluded plan is for six more - 60 episodes in total - following the Queen's life right up to the modern day.

- NZ Herald

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Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

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