The Crown enters the 80s, bringing with it the most dramatic collection of episodes we have seen in Peter Morgan’s Netflix drama about the nation’s most contentious family.
Starring Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson, Josh O’Connor, Emma Corrin, Marion Bailey, Erin Doherty, Stephen Boxer, and Emerald Fennell
The battle lines that propel the drama throughout The Crown’s fourth season are made abundantly clear remarkably early on, in second episode “The Balmoral Test”. After a notably quiet and uneventful outing last year (in which, for some reason, we were treated to an entire episode focussing exclusively on Prince Philip’s midlife crisis), the ‘80s provides the royal family with significantly more conflict. It’s also a period of history that is far better documented and culturally known of compared to the previous seasons’ storylines, with two historical icons making their debuts. This season’s storyline is hugely cohesive, and manages to start with Thatcher becoming PM, and ending with her downfall and departure from government. Elsewhere, Charles commences the season single and being urged to marry, and concludes with serious cracks forming in his marriage with Diana.
The Balmoral Test reveals much about all of the characters in Season 4. Firstly, there’s Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), who immediately careens from one mishap to the next even with the best of intentions. From arriving to dinner two hours early, to wearing formal wear in the middle of the countryside, and even daring to sit in Queen Victoria’s chair, Thatcher is subject to much subtle mockery and polite, snide remarks from the royals.
Thatcher’s and Elizabeth’s (Olivia Colman) diametrically opposed views when it comes to the country continues to be a point of tension throughout the season, with Thatcher of the belief that many of the old guard are entitled and out of touch, owing to her troubled upbringing. Elizabeth is led much more with her heart and compassion at all of her many subjects, while Thatcher’s cold conservative views expect all members of society to demonstrate the same level of grit and self-determination that she used to achieve her own position. Many compelling scenes derive from the two butting heads in polite, but uncomfortable debates, and the way that Thatcher is the only person comfortable enough to hold Elizabeth to task and stand firm within her own decisions, causing immense strife and consternation in the otherwise stoic monarch.
Anderson does well with the material that she is given here, and manages to move her portrayal away from just being an imitation or impression of Thatcher. Instead, she actually manages to breathe life into the so-called Iron Lady, even though her voice sounds more painful than it does natural. She somehow manages to marry together the ambitious and headstrong persona with a wife and mother, and a Prime Minister who even cooks for the members of her cabinet. A powerful woman she may be, but Thatcher is by no means progressive or feminist (remarking early on in the season that she believes that women are too emotional to be involved within politics).
On the other side of the coin, there’s Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), who passes the Balmoral test admirably. Her shy and placid demeanour, complete with a quiet assurance earns her the respect of the royal family, leading to a hasty proposal from Charles (Josh O’Connor). It’s intriguing that Diana takes to playing the royal game much better than Thatcher, and her story is defined by playing a role, in some ways better than some of the royals do, yet privately suffering.
Emma Corrin does an absolutely sterling job as the latest actress to tackle the people’s princess. Not only does she perfectly capture the voice and mannerisms of Diana, but she also manages to flesh her out in three dimensions. Diana’s journey throughout the season shows her transition from a shy, bright eyed girl, blown away and seduced by the fairytale romance she has found herself swept up in, to a deeply lonely, unassured and tortured soul, who leans upon the public’s support as somewhat of a crutch while also eclipsing the iconography of the entire institution.
Having said this, the portrayal of Charles’ and Diana’s relationship is startlingly balanced, and makes sure to demonstrate the good and bad within both parties throughout the situation. Corrin and O’Connor’s chemistry is consistently brilliant, whether they are meeting between potted plants or arguing in hotel rooms. Charles’ need for approval and tendencies towards self-pity, which were explored within Season 3, are wonderfully fed by Camilla (Emerald Fennell), but cannot be fulfilled by Diana, who is also desperately seeking love and reassurance herself. From this, The Crown fairly, and torturously, displays the deep, irreparable cracks that form in their marriage.
Diana’s well-documented bulimia is also handled sensitively. It is not used to shock or sensationalise, but rather an ever present element of her characterisation; a constant spectre looming over her, and yet only one element of her multi-faceted character.
This season also goes further than ever before at deconstructing the royal family. Through episodes like “The Balmoral Test”, as well as revelations made by Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) later in the season, the royals are often presented as snobbish and rude. The way that Thatcher is initially spurned for not knowing the unspoken code through with they live their life, and how Diana is spurned and downtrodden despite the fact that the entire royal family know that Charles is secretly in love with Camilla, paints the family in quite a negative light.
There’s also a sense of desperation and unsettlement to the royals. The insistence upon the illusion of their spectacle, and the lengths to which they will go to assure that, is a worrying trajectory, and is sure to be explored even further as Diana and Charles’ marriage continues to fall apart. The civil unrest that lurks in the background of the season, accompanied by Diana’s incredible rise owing to her sheer humanity, shines a stark light upon the closed off and unattainable nature of the rest of the royal family. The reception that Diana receives only serves to emphasise that conflict between the rigidity of the old guard, and the adaptability of the future that is represented both through Diana as a royal and some attributes of Thatcher as Prime Minister.
Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who previously struggled with her own personhood and balancing that with being the Queen, is now entirely indecipherable. It’s unclear where the Queen ends, and Elizabeth begins, and, frankly, she’s lost an awful lot of her personhood behind her title. She struggles to connect with her own children, realising that she doesn’t care greatly for any of them, and cannot even connect on a basic human level to Diana, even despite her own marital troubles earlier in the series. The title and the rules that she once prickled against and stood astride, she now firmly enforces and is entrenched in.
Within an ensemble cast, it is natural that some of the cast members will be neglected, and with a clear focus upon Charles and Diana’s relationship, as well as Thatcher’s politics, it’s understandable that some of the royals have been swept to the side. Unfortunately, this does mean not nearly enough of the jaded and aimless Princess Margaret, and similarly discontent Princess Anne (Erin Doherty). Princess Anne is barely featured in this instalment, though being consistently delightful in the background. Her marriage is subtly worked into the show, and she also, apparently, has children, though the show doesn’t lean too deeply into these ideas. Princes Andrew and Edward are also, briefly, remembered, but it’s made very clear that they’re not remotely important to the narrative. These are the sacrifices that have to be made for a cohesive and purposeful programme, but it is a terrific shame to have so little of these two wonderful performances, seeing as this season signals the last we will see of these actresses in these roles.
Of course, there are also significant liberties with the truth. Many of the conversations that take place in the show doubtless never happened in real life, such as Fagan’s break in at the palace, which verifiably did not occur in the way portrayed here, where it is used as yet another instance of illustrating the differences between Elizabeth and Thatcher. Still, that’s hardly unexpected in a show like The Crown, and there will be very few viewers who interpret every happening within the show as fact.
Another continuing highlight of The Crown is just how sumptuous the whole thing looks. The set design is impeccable, the cinematography sleek and elegant, and the costumes are just divine. Accompanied with some spectacular location work, the show continues to look absolutely fantastic.
The Crown Season 4 boasts a brilliant ensemble who deliver consistently amazing performances. A well paced narrative written by showrunner Peter Morgan and his team has a nice balance struck between the respective players, which manages to juggle political tension, interpersonal conflict and a remarkably sympathetic, nuanced and balanced exploration of Charles and Diana’s much-publicised and sensationalised relationship. Of course, this season also signals the end of the road for the current set up of royals, as Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Lesley Manville and Elizabeth Debicki step into the shoes of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana respectively. Still, with many more contemporary events left to adapt to screen, the future is looking bright for The Crown.
The Crown Season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.