james debate
james debate

Monday 30 November 2020

Created by Peter Morgan
Network Netflix
Starring Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson
Genre Historical drama
Running Time 45-60 minutes

the crown season 4 four princess diana margaret thatcher elizabeth queen colman foy corrin gillian anderson helena bonham carter best new show 2020

Until now, Netflix's The Crown has been something of a nostalgic fantasy. A sumptuously crafted, if highly romanticised, depiction of historic events and figures that are grounded enough in the world around us to feel relevant, yet distant enough to seem almost like the malleable icons of Arthurian legend. Yet as the story rapidly draws nearer to present day and enters the time of living memory, these depictions inevitably land closer to home and to controversy.

As a series, The Crown has something for everyone: history, politics, melodramatic posh people. Through it all, what makes the series so brilliant is the absolutely superlative production quality. It's been consistently brilliant and won a bunch of Debbie awards, plus a few others that no one cares about like the Emmys. But no matter how good a series is, I rarely come back to do a review of later seasons unless there is something noteworthy enough to justify a revisit. This is one of those situations.

With its fourth season, The Crown enters the 1980s. You all know what that means. Any drama about the royal family was inevitably going to reach this point. It was always going to be a headline moment in the series. It was pretty much guaranteed to be a shitshow in one way or another. Yes, this is the Princess Diana series.

The depiction of so beloved a figure presents challenges. Diana's deeds and untimely demise have ascended her image almost into the realm of national folklore. To write this person's story in such a way as to present the real individual without offending the... is a bold undertaking, doubly so for the actress who will be tasked with capturing this essence, and in doing so become for many people the living image of Diana as she is seen in the public discourse. 

But Diana is not the only figure of controversy here. Season four of the Crown also marks the first appearance of Margaret Thatcher, one of the more divisive political figures in recent British history.

So how do you even begin to analyse this? Ultimately I think there are two questions to ask here: 1) how accurate/fairly are these figures being depicted. and 2) how well written/acted are they (and thus ultimately, does it make for "good television"?).

The Royal Family, much more so than in previous seasons, is depicted as cold and arrogant. Frequently they are shown to belittle those beneath their level and regard others as pawns in their political machinations. This extends to Princess Diana, who is depicted as a marriage of convenience, a camera-friendly smokescreen while Charles continues his affair with Camilla basically throughout. Diana herself is not portrayed as some kind of saint, as we have become accustomed to seeing her depicted in recent years. This Diana is shown to be an ambitious, self-centred drama queen who craves status and attention.

There have been accusations that the writers of this show are playing up the drama for sensationalist reasons. But truthfully a lot of what is shown here matches up quite closely to that which is publicly known and confirmed. Many of the incidents of Diana craving the spotlight are based on documented events. If anything, the writers have shied away from depicting probably the most shocking of all documented incidents, one which Diana herself confirmed in a BBC interview: that she deliberately threw herself down the stairs while pregnant with William, basically as a cry for attention. 

To be fair, there are some instances where the truth appears to be stretched here in the name of drama. I have seen credible doubts raised as to whether Charles really was pursuing an open affair with Camilla throughout the marriage. In one scene Phillip appears to threaten Diana in what can only be seen as an ugly nod to the despicable Diana conspiracy theories. But ultimately the truth is that the Charles and Diana marriage really was a messy, ugly story in which no one comes off particularly well, and that appears to be fairly depicted here.

Margaret Thatcher on the other hand has quite the interesting portrayal here. At first the writers seem almost to want to humanise her character to an unrealistic degree, depicting her as meek and awkward in the face of the Royal Family's arrogance and snobbery. They emphasise her middle class roots and show her struggles against the repressive political patriarchy. In fairness they do also allude to her darker side: the allegations of corruption, her callousness towards the poor, her megalomania, her baffling views on gender equality, but it seems strangely at odds with how she is depicted at other times during the season and I am not sure if the writers really do as good a job as they can (or as was done in the film Iron Lady) in depicting a complete portrayal of the character.

But controversies aside, have they maintained the high quality of production from the previous seasons? Well it's The Crown, of course they have. The acting and production is for the most part as impeccable as you would expect. 

Emma Corrin is the big newcomer as Princess Diana and she provides a captivating performance in a difficult role that manages to dominate every scene in which she is a part (as Diana should do). Her Diana is in equal parts adorable and troublesome, sympathetic and frustrating. Corrin looks every bit a star in the making and I look forward to seeing where she goes in the future.

Gillian Anderson's Thatcher is sadly a bit more disappointing. Anderson is a wonderful actress, but her Thatcher comes off as far too cartoonish with the over the top neck craning, posture and belaboured vocal impression. Sometimes when it comes to portraying a historical figure less is more.

Otherwise longtime fans are likely to find the same series that they know and love. The Crown's fourth season is another lavish piece of prestige television, except with an added dose of melodrama. If you ever found yourself wishing that The Crown could be a bit more like Downton Abbey, this season is for you.

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