I didn’t think Olivia Colman’s arrival on Netflix’s “The Crown,” taking over the lead role of Queen Elizabeth II from Claire Foy, would in any way be controversial. She is on my short list of best and most consistent actresses of the moment, for her freakishly freakish turn as Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” for being the emotional core of “Broadchurch,” and for goofing so sharply on envy and vanity in “Fleabag.”
But it turns out that fans of “The Crown,” Peter Morgan’s lush take on the royal family across the decades, are not universally smitten with Colman in the role — to wit, my friend and colleague Don Aucoin, who, unknown to me until now, is a bit of a heathen. He can speak for himself, but those I’ve talked to feel that Colman comes off as bitter and stiff, giving us a woman far cooler than Foy’s younger model. There is none of Foy’s innocence, none of her reticence, in Colman’s queen; just an unappealing weariness. One Globe reader e-mailed to say that my praise of Colman was dire enough to undermine my credibility: “From now on, I will take your recommendations with a grain of salt,” she wrote.
So I am mounting my defense, since I think Colman has given a remarkable performance, one that is related to but distinct from Foy’s — just as most of us are related to but distinct from our younger selves. She has taken all of Foy’s setup — a dutiful young woman thrown into the deep end, the woman her uncle, King Edward VIII, once secretly referred to as “Shirley Temple” — and moved it to a more mature place. The scales have fallen from the older Elizabeth’s eyes; you can see the strain now, as she has carried the weight of the crown to the point of soul exhaustion. Years of awareness that, as queen, she isn’t meant to have opinions — “Monarchy is a calling from God,” her grandmother warned her — have eaten away at her former pleasantness. She must be nonpartisan in every respect, virtually un-human as a public figure whose crown was placed on her head by an archbishop.
I’ll admit that I don’t like Colman’s character as much as I liked Foy’s, but hey, that’s what middle age will do to some people. Middle age, as well as, for the queen, the threatening awareness that, as the 1960s dawned, the monarchy no longer automatically inspired reverence and awe. Caution is more essential than ever.
The series is, ultimately, about the crown itself — where it fits into the United Kingdom’s political realm, how it has changed to cope with the media and social shifts of the modern era, and what monarchy can do to an ordinary person. In the case of the show’s Elizabeth, the crown has subverted any broad, open qualities that might have defined her personality under other circumstances. She has had to learn to direct her feelings inward, which, as those who’ve struggled to express themselves healthily know quite well, is not the happiest place to be. Thus Colman’s chilliness, leading to those wonderfully small but critical moments when the actress lets the queen’s discontent leak out of her otherwise tightly wrapped sense of discretion. The upper lip snarls ever so slightly. The vacant stare becomes heightened. The hand too-eagerly reaches for the “time to go” button while her visitor watches.
Many of us tend to think of the real Elizabeth as dull, and perhaps, after decades of self-suppression, she is. There’s not a lot of star quality there, and she makes for an unlikely central character. No tormented Shakespearean royal, she. But Colman transforms that dullness into something more complex than mere blandness. The strict etiquette she has had to live by has crippled her, to the point where she needs to be advised by an assistant, after the Aberfan mining disaster that took 144 lives, “A display of emotion would not just be considered appropriate, it’s expected.” As Charles, Josh O’Connell performs the same trick as Colman, turning his young prince’s public vagueness into something more layered, a kind of clever self-protection.
Elizabeth’s lack of glamour — which her sister, Princess Margaret, certainly possessed — enables royal watchers to project a personality onto her, to expect what may or may not actually be lurking there behind her inscrutable eyes. If you think the queen is all serenity and grace, perhaps Colman and her darker interpretation grates. For others like me, though, she is simply and regally great.