Perhaps you could find a way to stir tension and suspense as she selects which matching overcoat and hat to wear each day. But really, if you were going to build a lavish Netflix drama around a British royal, hoping to draw viewers into a series designed to extend over six 10-episode seasons, you probably wouldn’t choose Queen Elizabeth II.
In most ways, it seems, Queen Elizabeth is the very opposite of drama, with her mild presence, her lack of formidable foes, and her adorable love of dogs and horses. She exhibits none of the raging flaws of Henry VIII, or the madness of King George III, or the steel will of Elizabeth I, the sorts of traits that add up to star quality. And yet here is “The Crown,” an expensive new series that meticulously chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth, with 10 episodes (set mostly in the 1950s) available Friday and 10 more already in production.
But “The Crown” is magnificent, regardless of its heroine’s even-keeled image, an image that once inspired her uncle, King Edward VIII, to secretly call her “Shirley Temple.” The show, created and written by Peter Morgan of “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” is thoroughly engaging, gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, rich in the historical events of postwar England, and designed with a sharp eye to psychological nuance. The episodes move forward in a compelling, elegant manner, with many carefully structured set pieces that are like jewels on the narrative. In a sequence in episode four, for example, we follow Prince Philip as he satisfies his yen to fly. The pilot, royal attendant Peter Townsend, turns off the engine so they can glide in peace. In those magical midair moments, Philip asks Townsend about his war experience.
The story slowly reveals an unflappable Elizabeth who rises to the occasion of the responsibilities she inherits at 25, after the death of her father, the stuttering George VI portrayed in “The King’s Speech.” We see her grow into her role in season one, trying to protect her warm marriage with the eccentric Philip from oppressive royal customs, and forging a rapport with curmudgeonly Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s a lovely evolution from indistinctive daughter to leader. In one scene, she sits with her dying grandmother, who schools her on what it means to be queen — or, perhaps, what it once meant. “Monarchy is a calling from God,” she says. “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 Elizabeth from expressing judgment in public, even in her facial expressions, which may help to explain the real queen’s impassivity.
What “The Crown” may do best of all is to show us the many facets of the crown — what it means to those who wear it, what it means to the people who look to it for role models, what part it plays in the complex relationship between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. In a way, it helps the series that Elizabeth isn’t a particularly flashy figure, so that we aren’t distracted as the series introduces its notions of royalty, governance, and the rarified world these people inhabit.
The writing humanizes each character we meet, but so do the actors, all of whom are extraordinary. Claire Foy was unforgettable in two “Masterpiece” productions, as Anne Boleyn in “Wolf Hall” and as Amy Dorrit in “Little Dorrit.” And she is remarkable here, too, in what should be a career-making performance. There’s a playful innocence about her — see her trying on the tall, heavy crown — and an openness to all the strange etiquette she must now observe. But she’s also quietly determined and willing to make sacrifices to fulfill her duties. Helen Mirren was outstanding as Elizabeth in “The Queen,” and Foy is her equal as the earlier model. As Philip, Matt Smith — formerly doing business as Doctor Who — is a revelation. He gives us a man with an oddball sense of humor, a lot of respect for his family, and a pleasing boyishness.
Jared Harris is achingly good as George VI. He’s a serious, tough, even grumpy leader, but then he has an abiding love for his children and a heart that is easily broken. In a sequence in the first episode, we see Christmas carolers with lanterns gather around the ailing king and his family and present him with a paper crown. He joins in the singing, but whimpers with held-back tears. Harris is even more dimensional as George than Colin Firth was in “The King’s Speech,” which focused more on George’s public speaking anxiety.
John Lithgow is riveting as a tall, internally chaotic Churchill, who has lost his early energy to bad health and cynicism. The brilliant fourth episode takes on the handful of days of “The Great Smog” of 1952, when London was disrupted by a thick layer that rendered visibility impossible and ultimately caused thousands of deaths. Churchill doesn’t want to bother with it, despite the dire need for leadership amid crisis, and Lithgow turns his stubbornness into a portrait of both self-righteous denial and, ultimately, opportunism. His gruffness is matched by that of Eileen Atkins in a fine turn as Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary.
Other acting highlights: Alex Jennings as the abdicating Edward, who chose his love of Wallis Simpson over the crown, and Vanessa Kirby as Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret, who is having an affair with Townsend.
If you’re looking for an unflattering portrait of the Windsors, you will be disappointed by “The Crown.” Morgan is trying to make them into human beings, as he has done in a number of his other works, and in the process he has let his sympathies take over. Those sympathies enable him to find as much drama in the small family negotiations as in the big historical events they face. “The Crown” is a sophisticated, dazzling, and addictive pleasure.
Starring: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Jared Harris, John Lithgow, Jeremy Northam, Vanessa Kirby, Greg Wise, Eileen Atkins, Victoria Hamilton, Alex Jennings, Ben Miles
On: Netflix, streaming FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.