“The Crown,” a gorgeous, well-acted 10-episode series covering the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s now 64-year reign, is Netflix’s most pedigreed original series since the David Fincher-produced “House of Cards” debuted in 2013.
Peter Morgan, who previously explored the life of Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen,” created “The Crown,” and Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) executive produced this reportedly $100 million series, debuting Nov. 4. Claire Foy (“Wolf Hall”) stars as Elizabeth, with Matt Smith (“Dr. Who”) as her husband, Prince Philip, and John Lithgow as Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Like the addictive “Cards,” “Crown” illuminates behind-the-scenes political intrigue – here, at Buckingham Palace, where a young queen’s personal desires conflict with tradition, and at 10 Downing St., where insiders plot to unseat a prime minister deemed over the hill. Yet the new series’ unhurried pace and general classiness lend it the rare streaming-service distinction of being better savored than binge-watched.
To get a sense of how to watch it, think of the weekly pace of “Downton Abbey,” tone down that show’s soapier elements and add real-life story lines (assiduously researched by Morgan). We watched four “Crown” episodes over a weekend, and felt rushed, given all the spectacular scenery and history lessons there were to absorb.
Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland composes wide-angle shots worthy of the big screen when Elizabeth and Philip travel to Kenya. Birkeland’s roomy framing of interior shots, once the couple returns home, helps impart the enormity of the task 25-year-old Elizabeth must assume upon the 1952 lung-cancer death of her father, King George VI (“Mad Men’s” Jared Harris, again soulfully doomed).
Foy is so unshowy she seems to pale, in the first few episodes, next to Smith – loving yet restless as Philip, who gave up his Royal Navy job to become royalty – and the sparky Vanessa Kirby, as the Queen’s fun-loving sister, Princess Margaret. But Foy eventually draws the viewer to her. Elizabeth becomes a figure of intrigue as Foy’s face registers the young queen’s recognition she is duty-bound but also, as a wielder of influence within the government, empowered in ways few women were in the 1950s.
Foy is especially good opposite Lithgow, who plays late-career Churchill as righteousness-hardened yet savvy enough to recognize the queen’s subtle power moves.
“The Crown” delivers details about little-recalled (at least to Americans) postwar England events like the 1952 “Great Smog,” which disastrously combined locked-in fog with pollutants, mostly from coal, killing 4,000. The series’ account of this incident highlights the length of a reign that encompasses a still-downright-Dickensian London and the internet age.
The 10-episode series debuts Nov. 4 on Netflix