Netflix announced its series The Crown as a “biopic” unprecedented in quality and cost—and that was not false advertising.
The ungainly term “biopic” apparently first appeared in 1951, but biographical films have represented some of the most solid achievements of the cinema from its early days—certainly for those who find history more fascinating than fiction, and who know enough of the past to make the distinction. George Arliss should rank as the master of the art, having portrayed Disraeli, Hamilton, Voltaire, Richelieu, and Wellington—and Mayer Rothschild and Nathan Rothschild in the same film. Thirty years ago, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, about Pu Yi, was a biopic on a gigantic scale, and was perhaps even more powerful and accurate than Lawrence of Arabia. For a convincing portrayal on a more modest budget, Marion Cotillard was perfect as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
It is harder to play the role of someone still alive, for looking the part risks turning a film into a bad day at Madame Tussaud’s. The Crown does a very convincing job of casting, and while Jared Harris does not quite have the face of George VI, he is a triumph of empathy for the dying monarch. Churchill is personalized beyond caricature, and at times can even seem vulnerable. If the Englishman Daniel Day-Lewis could be Lincoln, the American John Lithgow can be the half-American Churchill, albeit somewhat padded. (Lithgow atones for the way Timothy Spall turned Winston into a gargoyle in The King’s Speech.) As Queen Mary, Eileen Atkins makes evident why the royal grandparents were known as “George the Fifth and Mary the Four-Fifths.” A splendid film could be made about that grande-dame of grande-dames, as fleshed out in the biography by James Pope-Hennessy. Matt Smith is irritatingly petulant as Philip, and the most uncanny look-alike is Alex Jennings as the mordant Duke of Windsor. His conversations with the young queen are fiction, but as fiction goes, they are exactly what might have been said had they been said.
As six seasons of ten episodes move along, the Queen will age beyond the fine ability of Claire Foy. One cannot imagine Foy’s Elizabeth growing older the way Helen Hayes’s Victoria Regina did, but that was on the stage and not in front of camera close-ups. The understated Foy captures the Queen’s life of subservience to duty, unfailingly conscious of her coronation oath, in which civil and sacral realms meet. What cynics would call the Queen’s lack of stardom, even victimhood to routine, is the “cupio dissolvi” not unlike that of the priest at the altar or the judge at the bench, robed in an office and not created by the officer.
Peter Morgan’s screenplay is remarkably faithful to fact. It successfully conveys the weight of reigning while not ruling, in a constitutional system burdened by ambiguity. That weight is symbolized by the fact that the Imperial State Crown wears nearly three pounds, and the Crown of St. Edward is five pounds. The Queen practices wearing the former for a few days before opening Parliament, with the royal chiropractor in attendance.
The crisis of Princess Margaret’s thwarted marriage is a poignant commentary on the devolution of the “holy estate of Matrimony.” It seems unlikely that a contemporary audience would understand Margaret’s problem as a problem at all. But if the Church of England has been schizophrenic about divorce since Tudor days, current tensions about Rome’s Amoris Laetitia raise the question of how the Catholic Church will weather challenges to her more substantial sacramental foundations.
When a future episode depicts the neurotic caterwauling over the death of the hapless Princess Diana, it will have some parallel to the dramaturgical rioting and rending of garments after our recent presidential election. The Queen may seem remote and trapped in regal torpor in the estimation of narcissistic “snowflakes” who would not have recognized Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor driving a military truck during a war that had no “safe spaces” with coloring books and therapeutic puppies. Her stiff upper lip stayed stiff. During one of the official birthday parades, when a madman fired six blank shots at her, she reined in her horse and rode on as though nothing had happened; and when a stalker burst into her bedroom in Buckingham Palace, she calmly chatted him up for ten minutes until she was able to signal a footman.
The Crown shows a woman who has probably witnessed more great events, met more people, and known more intelligence secrets than anyone in history. She is head of sixteen countries, her Commonwealth seems to be doing better than the European Union, and she has managed almost preternaturally to stand in spotlights for nine decades without once making a faux pas. It is said that the only time she was speechless was when Jack Benny, after a command performance, asked the bejeweled lady her name. In the manner of courtiers, her retinue did not laugh until she did. One advantage attached to the paradox of a domesticated monarchy is that it pulls rank on mere celebrity, as when a Hollywood starlet preparing to be presented at a palace reception expressed the hope that her dress would not clash with the color the Queen would be wearing. A palace spokesman explained that there would be no problem, since Her Majesty does not notice how others are dressed.
The first Elizabeth was a genius and a monster. Elizabeth II is neither, and that could be the formula for banality. But it may be its own kind of power—for if a monarch’s most important act is to be born, that act ennobles every nursery and makes the end of every life well lived its crowning moment. When the Queen visited New York City in 2010 to speak at the United Nations, which she makes a habit of doing every fifty years, a young black fellow standing on the street told a reporter, “She is just like my Grandma.” After its six seasons, The Crown will have spent more than $100 million to explain splendidly what he meant.
Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of the Church of St. Michael in New York City.
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