By the time Queen Elizabeth had been ruling Britain for a decade, it’s safe to say she had banished any tiny vestiges of spontaneity, impulse or fun from her public behavior.
With season three of the acclaimed series The Crown, which premieres Sunday on Netflix, we see the Elizabeth most of us have known all our lives: totally controlled and entirely focused on presenting a demeanor of reassuring concern and benevolence.
She was not alone, it should be noted, in regarding a calm, assured face as the most important part of her job in an age when the throne had long since lost any actual power. If she doesn’t seem to represent some sort of national equilibrium, exactly why is this expensive monarchy being kept around at all?
Seasons one and two of The Crown, in which Claire Foy played the young Elizabeth as she ascended to the throne and then wrestled with its responsibilities, offered periodic glimpses behind the mask. Foy’s Elizabeth occasionally felt frustration and thought normal-person thoughts and ruminated about the cage, albeit the well-appointed cage, in which fate and history had placed her.
Season three, in which Olivia Colman takes over the role, begins in 1964, 11 years after Elizabeth’s coronation. In its early episodes, at least, Elizabeth has settled firmly into the “acceptance” stage.
She has accepted what she must be, and she wants to do it as efficiently and traditionally as possible.
She has become the unapologetically bland queen who still reigns today, 66 years later.
Colman, then, faces the challenge of how to make bland interesting.
Happily, she has the skills to do it. The question is whether the writers will give her the material, since subtle gestures and expressions can only take her so far.
She gets solid help from Tobias Menzies, who takes over as Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip, and Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth’s younger and livelier sister Princess Margaret.
Still, The Crown’s dilemma is reflected in the new season’s first two episodes, which take markedly different tones.
As fans of previous seasons know, each episode of The Crown takes a real-life historical event or situation and dramatizes it. The writers imagine dialogue and enhance dynamics in ways that make for, okay, let’s face it, better television.
The first episode of season three primarily focuses on a Cold War spy scandal, wherein the royal art curator was found to have been slipping state secrets to the Soviet Union.
The resolution of that discovery took a startling twist in real life, and The Crown follows that path. The problem for American audiences is that while this case sent shock waves through Britain, its impact was more muted on this side of the pond.
A dramatized recounting of the case does not elevate it to the level of vivid, particularly since Elizabeth herself does not bring any added electricity.
As if tacitly acknowledging this rather mild opener, the writers go the other way with the second episode.
Bonham Carter’s Margaret, only an incidental presence in the first episode, bursts forth in the second, when a reluctant Elizabeth enlists her in a diplomatic mission.
Here again, the story has factual roots. The presentation, including Bonham Carter’s indelible performance, has “amped up for TV” stamped all over it.
The tone of The Crown still has an authentic ring as season three begins, and Colman makes viewers feel confident they’re seeing who Elizabeth had become.
But if anyone doubted after season two that The Crown is a TV show first and a biographical portrait second, that doubt has evaporated as surely as any lingering twinkle in Elizabeth’s eye.