Culture

Television

Purple reign: ‘The Crown’

By Craig Mathieson
Among November’s streaming highlights, the fourth season of Netflix’s royal drama fails to excite

Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles and Emma Corrin as Diana Spencer in The Crown. Image © Des Willie / Netflix

The fourth season of The Crown, Netflix’s cornerstone historic drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, reinforces the show’s strengths, but it also amplifies its failings. Opening with the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, and running until 1990, the liberally adapted narrative is haphazard and sometimes shallow. The arrival of Thatcher, played with a raspy voice and unwavering self-belief by Gillian Anderson, and the 1981 marriage of Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) to the Queen’s heir, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), are meant to present famous contrasts to Olivia Colman’s now middle-aged monarch. Instead, none of the three women come into sharp focus, and their lives are reduced to a collection of incidents, most of which are merely milked for their tidy symbolism.

The show’s creator, Peter Morgan, has a gift for invention and a sure touch in maintaining the voices of his characters. The assuredness of his dialogue, particularly the pithy exchanges between members of the royal family, remains pleasurable. When the Queen reports to shocked family members that Diana, despairing at her failing marriage, has hugged her without advance notice, her daughter, Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), curtly replies, “I feel sick.” With the palaces and pomp straining for effect – a season of The Crown reportedly costs more than a year’s upkeep for the actual royal family – it all works best as a subversive comedy where the individuals at the centre of the grand institution have been left thoroughly warped by it.

But when Morgan looks outside the dysfunction and duty of a privileged family business he often runs aground. The portrayal of Thatcher as a conservative firebrand is fixed by Anderson’s molten glances, but Thatcherism is merely expressed as a worryingly high level of unemployment due to her reforms. It falls to Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), the unemployed Londoner who broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982 and woke the Queen in her bedroom, to try and point out the damage the prime minister is doing to working-class communities. That the acerbic Fagan is quickly arrested and then, as an end credit notes, treated for mental illness sums up how desperate Morgan can get for explanatory commentary. Conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands come and go in a few headline moments that the Queen never actually comments on.

Some individual characters, such as Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) in the previous season and Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) in this one, get an episode to themselves that builds to a profound moment of self-realisation, but the impact is never carried through and they remain essentially unchanged in subsequent episodes. The new season puts far more time into Diana, but it’s quickly defined by the broadest of strokes, whether it’s hysterical arguments with a husband who loves another woman or depictions of Diana’s eating disorder. Morgan’s portrayal of the Queen as a young woman, played by Claire Foy, allowed for moments of nuance that he simply fails to find with Diana. As a result, The Crown’s fourth season teeters on the brink of soap opera excess.

Focusing on Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president of the United States in the 1980s might appear to be counterintuitive given Donald Trump’s current displays of sabotage and sulkiness at the White House, but the docuseries The Reagans (Stan) makes clear the links between the two Republican leaders. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Where’s My Roy Cohn?), the four episodes position Reagan, the Hollywood B-actor turned conservative politician, as a precursor to Trump, whether in terms of a chaotic administration, the unmoored celebration of American exceptionalism, or the embrace of dog-whistle politics on issues of race. Commentators and staffers offer a frank portrait of Reagan’s eight years in power, which includes another damning comparison to Trump: both ignored a virus (HIV and COVID-19 respectively) that resulted in extensive loss of life.

Caught between the giddy happenstance of youth and the constraints of identity, We Are Who We Are (SBS On Demand) is a quietly evocative LGBT coming-of-age story co-written and directed by the Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name). The limited series is set on a US military base in northern Italy in 2016 (more Trump echoes), where the teenage children of military personnel live in a Little America bubble. Newcomer Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and fellow teenager Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamon) are drawn to each other, correctly sensing a mutual urge to discover who they might be, whether in terms of sexuality or gender. It’s a powerful, mostly unspoken bond, and Guadagnino’s intimate use of the camera and open-ended pacing lets it slowly take shape across eight episodes. Streaming television’s expansiveness suits him well.

In brief: Moonbase 8 (Stan) is a deadpan comedy of male self-doubt, an emotion magnified by the central characters being isolated in a NASA simulator in the Arizona desert. John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker play the hopeful – but hopeless – astronauts, whose setbacks and recoveries allow for droll comic rhythms. Just added to Netflix two years after it debuted on the BBC, A Very English Scandal remains a tart, tragic farce about the brief affair and long enmity between leading British MP Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant, never better) and his defiant lover, Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw). Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun (Netflix) is an absurdist tonic – a sketch comedy series where the Melbourne comedy troupe repeatedly extend and mutate an idea until it breaks free of the underlying logic. It may sound drily conceptual, but in execution it’s cheerfully inventive and ludicrous.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles and Emma Corrin as Diana Spencer in The Crown. Image © Des Willie / Netflix

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