Netflix’s series The Crown has now reached its fourth season and is available in its entirety for those who want to either binge-watch the whole thing in a sitting or stretch it over ten weeks. Anyone who has watched it from the beginning knows that Queen Elizabeth II has changed somewhat since her younger days. In seasons one and two, she looked for all the world like Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall), but now (seasons three and four) she appears the spittin’ image of Olivia Colman. Of course, there’s good reason for that perception since those actresses took the roles of the younger and middle-aged Elizabeth.
The producers of the series wisely, probably very wisely, chose to forego the excessive make-up necessary to make Foy (born 1984) appear years older than she is. As for Colman, she is only ten years older than Foy, which places her in her mid-forties, about ten years younger than the real queen was during the events chronicled on the small screen. Yet she manages to project the stolid, matronly character that fits the popular perception of the monarch.
What makes season four of The Crown especially interesting is the skillful contrasting of Colman’s Elizabeth with two other notable women of the day: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). The queen and the “Iron Lady” were only a year apart in age, but in The Crown and real-life, they were ostensibly different from one another. That Elizabeth is born royal is a given; Thatcher is middle class to the core. Elizabeth, at least as Colman portrays her, is bent—or so she believes—on conciliation with one and all; Thatcher loves challenges as the battles she later weathered would attest.
Elizabeth moves from London to Balmoral with ease; Thatcher is of the town, daughter of a grocer, and completely lost on her visit to the royal residence in Scotland. Elizabeth was, after a fashion, home-schooled; Thatcher went to elementary, grammar school (the upper-level free schools in the England of the day), Oxford where she studied chemistry, and finally studied law.
Were they, then, complete opposites? Not exactly. Both were intensely patriotic in a very old-fashioned way, Elizabeth through her maintaining of tried-and-true forms and manners in changing times, Thatcher in her hard-line stance on the Falklands and her Euro-skepticism. As mothers (in episode four, “Favourites”), they show similar strengths and weaknesses in their love of one child over another (or in Elizabeth’s case, others) and their imperviousness to the heartbreak these preferences cause those whom they neglect—Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) and Carol Thatcher (Rebecca Humphries). Ultimately they both live in solitude.
And what of Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales? She is young, fresh, and, from what viewers can tell, liked immensely. Her visit to Balmoral (episode two, “The Balmoral Test”) proves triumphant, and—with the exception of Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Prince Charles himself (Josh O’Connor)—the whole royal family urges the marriage. The engagement, as many of us recollect, was the stuff of dreams (or a “Fairytale,” episode three’s title), but in The Crown the happy ending is displaced quickly with a descent into the realms of nightmare.
Diana, notwithstanding her noble pedigree, feels lost in Buckingham Palace, and Charles’s cordial manner is far from the loving prince charming she expected. She loses herself in eating binges with bulimic results and, during her first pregnancy, locks herself away in her bedroom from Charles and all royal visitors, Elizabeth included. All told, the main thing she has in common with the queen and the prime minister is her unhappiness. And like them, she appears doomed to accept the hand she’s been dealt.
Colman, as I’ve indicated, makes a convincing Elizabeth. As for Anderson’s Thatcher, she does capture the great lady’s determination and attendant work ethic. But although the real Thatcher was a highly deliberate, hardworking woman, she was also witty and supremely intelligent, and, to at least some, good company. Anderson’s version comes off as a bit too much of a stoggy plodder, and her efforts to capture Thatcher’s careful speech are too deliberate, making the prime minister appear more like the older Thatcher in her declining years. Corrin’s Di combines innocence and disillusion, as she should. Did the marriage sour that quickly? I’m not one to say, but we all know where it went, and since The Crown is, after all, drama, not history, a swift decline enhances the audience’s appreciation of the tragic choice Charles and Diana made.
I still have six more episodes of The Crown to watch, and though it’s certain the usual spate of Christmas movies will get in the way, I plan on following the story to what looks to be a bitter end—with, if reports be true, two more seasons to go.