For many Americans, the late Queen Elizabeth II was an enigma.
Always dignified, always projecting warmth, she nonetheless seemed somewhat inscrutable. What we do know has largely come from the screen portrayals of her — and there haven’t been many of those, in part because of her mildness and gentility, which can be hard to build into dramatic tension. With none of the raging flaws of Henry VIII, without the madness of King George III, or the stutter of King George VI, she’s not the royal you’d be likely to turn to if you were hoping to create fireworks on the screen — unless you can turn her daily choice of matching hats and overcoats into some kind of grand intrigue.
Nonetheless, writer Peter Morgan has tried — and succeeded. Perhaps the best-known and most detailed portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, alongside Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning take in Morgan’s “The Queen,” has come from Morgan’s “The Crown,” the lush Netflix series that tracks the big moments and notable phases of her long reign. So far, she has been played by Claire Foy as a young woman and by Olivia Colman in middle age; Imelda Staunton’s elder version is up next, when the Emmy-winning series returns in November.
In those cases, Morgan has shown us a woman who valued her office more than her own needs, one who learned from the start to have a deep respect for her responsibilities. She prided herself on her refusal to become a public personality, seeing herself more as a benign figure — at times, almost a cipher — temporarily wearing the all-important and immortal crown. Even when the ever-expanding media pushed for scandal from the palace, even when divorce and adultery found their way into her family, she remained impassive and serene.
And yet, and yet. Morgan also makes it clear that it may not have always been easy for Elizabeth to create the impression of being no one in particular. One of the triumphs of the series has been the writer’s ability to show us how, even with her insistence on projecting blandness, she grew into a quietly formidable presence behind the scenes — which we saw most vividly in her relationships with the various prime ministers she worked with, in her eager reaches for the “time to go” button when she was tired of a visitor, and in her coldness to Diana, who was unwilling to make the same sacrifices to royalty that Elizabeth herself had made long ago.
Ultimately, Morgan’s Elizabeth hasn’t been genuinely boring; she has simply wanted the world to think she is. Morgan has made her into a human being, with attractions and aversions, judgments and a sense of humor, that she did not want us to know about. He has shown us that, despite her presentation, being Queen Elizabeth was not an easy gig, and that there was some strain in making people think it was.
During the promotion for the first season of “The Crown,” Morgan said: “I went into this thinking she was an empty vessel but realized you can tell what she thinks from what she hasn’t said and hasn’t done. I suspect there’s a million times she curses under her breath.”
We first see the makings of Elizabeth’s resistance to personal displays early in “The Crown,” when she inherits the job after the death of her father. She learns from her dying grandmother what it means, historically, to be queen: “Monarchy is a calling from God,” she’s told. “It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant, which means that you’re answerable to God in your duty, not the public.” She discourages the innocent Elizabeth from expressing any kind of judgment in public, even in her facial expressions.
In Foy’s hands, Elizabeth is quietly determined to fulfill that duty. Thrown into the deep end, she nonetheless clings to discretion and grace. Publicly, she is colorless, and proud of it, even as she slowly begins to learn how to wield her authority in Buckingham Palace and how to protect her marriage.
In Colman’s hands, the queen continues to have a distant energy, and she remains undyingly dutiful; but she is also a bit more worn out, more painfully restrained, especially with the advent of the bumpy Diana and Charles marriage. She is still holding back, but there is a slight snarl in her upper lip, her stare slightly more aggressively vacant. We see how the etiquette that she has had to live by has also crippled her emotionally. After a depiction in “The Crown” of the Aberfan mining disaster that takes 144 lives, including 116 children, her assistant needs to explain to the queen, “A display of emotion would not just be considered appropriate, it’s expected.”
Is Morgan’s version the version? As with any scripted biography, facts and leaps of imagination are embedded together. Articles that point out discrepancies between “The Crown” and the historical record abound. But Morgan has said that his goal wasn’t factual accuracy so much as deeper truths. The show is, ultimately, historical fiction.
In an interview with The Telegraph in 2016, Morgan said: “It’s as if I was painting a portrait — I can’t take my hand out of it, whereas if absolute accuracy was all you were after you would take a photograph with flat light. But that’s not what we’re doing here. You try to get yourself into her head and respond to the challenges she faces.”
Luckily for us, Morgan is pretty good with a brush.