Not since the heyday of “Everybody Loves Raymond’’ have my pal Matthew Gilbert and I differed so sharply on a TV matter. (I considered “Raymond’’ the kind of carb-heavy comfort food that is one of television’s reasons for existing. Matthew thought it was indigestible tripe.)
Now, we meet in combat on far loftier cultural ground: Netflix’s “The Crown.’’ The subject of our dispute is Olivia Colman’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. Having taken the baton (scepter?) from Claire Foy, who played Her Highness in seasons one and two, how does Colman stack up against her predecessor?
Not well, I regret to say. I find Colman’s performance to be a royal bore. Her upper lip isn’t the only thing that’s stiff. For an actress with such a brilliant track record, she is curiously one-dimensional in “The Crown,’’ and this season of the series is suffering because of it. Colman’s portrayal of Elizabeth is lacking in the kind of surprise that quickens the pulse in anticipation of the next scene. I’ve seen nearly all of season 3, and I’ve missed Foy nearly every step of the way.
There’s a reason Shakespeare was drawn again and again to telling the stories of monarchs. What fascinated him was the contradiction between absolute power on the one hand and universal human frailty on the other. Sure, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown and all that, but Shakespeare also understood that when it comes to the experience of love, loss, and raw emotion, kings and queens can be burdened and bedeviled by the same stuff we commoners are.
Foy took that kind of contradiction as her starting point. What made her portrayal so riveting was the way her face operated like a seismograph, registering the small vibrations from Elizabeth’s inner life, constantly churning beneath the queen’s formal veneer. Thanks to the subtle, flickering dance of Foy’s features, you were ever-mindful of the ongoing push-pull conflict within Elizabeth as she steadily surrendered parts of her self in the name of duty. James Gandolfini did much the same thing in “The Sopranos,’’ conveying Tony Soprano’s vulnerability as the sensitive mobster grappled with a similar public-private dilemma.
With Colman, however, that kind of internal conflict is only intermittently discernible. She seems to have approached the role as primarily a technical challenge. So, yes, Colman does expertly communicate Elizabeth’s stoicism and command — the Queen’s official self. But that is something we can see easily enough in footage from the BBC or CNN. What we need, and what Colman has not given us enough of this season, is the Queen’s psychology. That, not external mannerisms, is the essential stuff of dramatic interpretation.
I have enormous respect for Colman, who has delivered sublime onscreen portraiture in “Broadchurch,’’ “The Favourite,’’ and “Fleabag.’’ I assume that her muted performance in “The Crown’’ is an acting choice. She may see it as a means of conveying how completely Elizabeth has disappeared behind a carefully composed mask, both in public and in private, as she moves into middle age.
However, while a distancing performance style is all very well if you’re performing in a play by Brecht, it can throw off the rhythms of a historical drama like “The Crown.’’ Most of the memorable sparks this season have been generated not by Colman’s Queen Elizabeth but by the displays of angst and/or rebellion by supporting characters chafing at their royal roles: Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Philip. Part of the blame for Colman’s receding presence belongs to “Crown’’ creator and executive producer Peter Morgan, who hasn’t given his supremely gifted star enough to do.
But that is when an actress of Colman’s caliber should rise to the challenge. Here’s hoping that next season she finds a path into the deepest parts of her character — and takes the rest of us on that journey.