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Enter Maggie Thatcher and Princess Diana: Season Four of 'The Crown' Marks the Series' Finest Hour
November 21, 2020  | By Alex Strachan
 


There are two performances that jump out instantly in the new season of The Crown (on Netflix), and they're not the performances you might expect.

Gillian Anderson, eerily chameleon-like and virtually unrecognizable in the role of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and newcomer Emma Corrin (top) as an elfin, high-energy — and fatally naive — soon-to-be Princess Diana have a fleeting number of scenes together in these new episodes and yet, each in her own way, steals the show.

The long-awaited new season of The Crown, written once again in its entirety by Peter Morgan and directed on an alternating basis by Benjamin Caron, Paul Whittington, Julian Jarrold, and Jessica Hobbs, is in many ways the series' finest to date, taking in the IRA terror campaign of the early 1970s, Thatcher's terror campaign against social spending, the Falklands War and last, but not least, the coming-of-age of Diana Spenser from coquettish post-Mod elf to reluctant wife, mother-of-two and, eventually, a public figure in her own right.

In Morgan's capable if controversial hands (more on that in a moment), the Diana story eventually takes over the entire season, and it's fascinating to watch as it veers from love story to tragedy, a tale of war and peace on both the homefront and overseas.

This is a pattern with The Crown. The most interesting episodes tend to be the so-called standalones in the middle. There are ten episodes in all (Netflix has announced that the next season, The Crown's fifth, will be its last.)

The fifth episode Fagan, based on a true story if not exactly true in all its details, follows Michael Fagan, a mentally disturbed, unemployed interior decorator as he breaks into Buckingham Palace in the middle of the night, not once but twice, and explains the meaning of life to a startled Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman, who by this point has made the role her own) alone in her bedroom. ("Thank you," the Queen says in a steady, even-handed tone to the equally startled maid who brings her tea in the morning, the first person in the palace to discover the two together. "Perhaps you might call the police now.")

This scene, as with so much in The Crown, is fictionalized, as Morgan has said in interviews. The real royal family is notoriously tight-lipped about their private lives. The bedside chat between Michael Fagan and Queen Elizabeth happened, but what was actually said remains between them.

It's the following episode, Terra Nullius, though, that marks the season's turning point, and it's a stunner and arguably The Crown's finest hour. A reluctant — to put it mildly — Princess Diana and introverted weirdo Prince Charles embark on a state visit to faraway Australia, bawling baby Prince William in tow. Australia's prime minister of the hour sees their visit as an opportunity to humiliate the royals and establish once-and-for-all that Australia is Australia, thank you very much, and not some glorified colonial possession half a world away.

That state visit would prove to be the making of Princess Diana. The reluctant young wife, still a teenager at heart, emerges as a crusader for social causes, charismatic and personable, comfortable with other people in a way Prince Charles never will be, good with children, and gifted with a sharp, keen wit — a rock star in a time when being a rock star meant something.

To the fury of her male betters and the older royals watching on TV from back home, Diana steals the show, in much the same way Corrin steals this season of The Crown away from more established performers like Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter. There's an astounding camera shot in this episode where we see a woman emerge from a swimming pool; she grabs a towel and walks to the edge of the balcony railing, and looks down into the street where, far below, we suddenly see a sea of people lining both sides of the street, awaiting the procession of the visiting royals.

It's this episode that sums up Charles and Diana's increasingly complicated relationship, for better or worse, till death do them part.

Diana is now a world treasure and, back home, the elder royals are not happy. How dare she? The whole idea of the state visit was to promote the family brand, not make "the difficult child" the star of the hour.

We know the history of what happened next. The Crown's singular achievement is in making us, the viewers, care. That's what skillful drama does.

So far, the reception in the UK, from conservatives, monarchists, and surly Tory party members, has been less than kind. The reaction here is likely to be very different and with good reason. The season toggles back and forth between Thatcher — another weirdo, albeit in a very different way — and the increasingly fragile Diana, and it's fascinating to see the way Colman's Queen Elizabeth and Tobias Menzies' Prince Phillip are relegated to background players, peripheral figures in their own play.

Anderson's Thatcher is sensational. Those who knew Thatcher personally, or claim to anyway, have said that Anderson gets it wrong, but that's not the point. This is not a documentary, nor is it even a biopic per se.

In Morgan's hands — and it's hard to overstate just what a monumental achievement Morgan has pulled off here — The Crown is allegory, metaphor, soap opera, and social satire all wrapped into one. Anderson's Thatcher tilts her head in speech, an outrageous thatch of hair springing onward and upwards from her overly large head, her cadence firm and yet oddly stilted as if measuring every word. Thatcher tended to think before she spoke, and others just had to wait for the words to get out. The scenes of Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher together — two strong women, from widely differing backgrounds, circling each other warily like a pair of timberwolves jockeying for leadership of the pack — are tense, brittle, and electrifying.

And then there's Corrin.

The new season ends in the year 1990, with the flames threatening to consume what remains of Diana and Charles' fairytale wedding. The contrast between the young Diana's youthful charm and burning idealism, and the coldness and cruelty she finds herself surrounded by, is striking. Corrin, fresh out of drama school when she took on the Crown job, cuts both a luminous and tragic figure.

The Crown was always hard to pin down. Is it docudrama or biopic? Is it drama or satire? This season we learn the answer, and it's perhaps not quite what we expected or wanted to hear: It's all those and more. To paraphrase the late Winston Churchill, "That which is so dense and secretive as to be totally indecipherable or impossible to foretell…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." And compellingly watchable. The Crown was always good, but rarely this good.

 
 
 
 
 
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