Despite being at the centre of British culture and constantly in the public eye, we know little about the details of the royal family’s private lives. So when The Crown first premiered in 2016, promising an in-depth look into Elizabeth II’s reign, it quickly became one of Netflix’s most talked-about shows. Claire Foy dazzled as a young Queen Elizabeth struggling with the responsibilities of sovereignty. Matt Smith was excellent as Prince Phillip coming to terms with his place in the Queen’s shadow. Vanessa Kirby heartbreakingly portrayed a youthful princess Margaret being kept from the man she loved. It presented the royals as human beings who love, who hate and who feel.
It was almost as if Buckingham Palace became the Big Brother house, as viewers were given insight like never before into the royals’ lives. Yet, there is a danger of treating The Crown like a reality show. In 2020, the government’s culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, requested that Netflix provide a “disclaimer”, to remind viewers that the show is not completely based on fact. Netflix disagreed, claiming that they have “always presented The Crown as a drama.”
Significantly, Dowden’s request came in the aftermath of the release of The Crown’s fourth season. Conversation surrounding the show had reached an all-time high following the arrival of new and controversial character, Diana, played by Emma Corrin.
If viewers enjoyed the previous insights into the royals’ more ‘human’ side, Diana’s introduction provided an even greater taste of normality. One of the season’s most memorable images is Diana roller-skating around the halls of Buckingham Palace, listening to ‘Girls On Film’ on her Walkman. Appearing as an archetype of 1980s youth, she seems completely incongruous with her surroundings’ traditional grandeur. While Diana’s refreshing normality delivers some of the series’ most joyful moments, it is her humane rendering that makes her low points all the more tragic. The series traces the heartbreaking details of Diana’s eating disorder and her isolated, loveless relationship with Charles. Her hardship becomes all the more poignant when thinking back to her charming joy in earlier scenes.
When there is a hero, there must be a villain and in the case of The Crown, it’s Charles. Josh O’Connor’s portrayal of the prince was certainly well received by critics, but those close to the royals were less than complimentary. Friends of Charles have apparently branded the series “trolling on a Hollywood budget.”
All I can say in response is that I would love to hear what these people have to say about Spencer. My friend and I ventured to the cinema last term to watch Spencer in a bid for a relaxing essay break. I can now only wonder why this was the film we chose if relaxation was our aim. There are many words I could use to describe Spencer but ‘relaxing’ is certainly not one of them. Set in 1991, when Diana and Charles’ marriage was all but officially over, the film’s chief goal is to convey the complete misery Diana feels when trapped with the Windsors over Christmas. Spencer is laced with graphic depictions of Diana’s bulimia, truly horrifying instances of self-harm and haunting appearances from the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Meanwhile, the Queen, Phillip and Charles barely speak and are rarely seen; they eerily become largely voiceless beings who torment and victimise Diana. Their vicious depiction completely contrasts the humanity that was at the focus of The Crown and is interesting to consider in the wake of Meghan Markle’s accusations against the royals last year. Although certainly not a comfort watch, Spencer is worth the time. It is a fascinating character study, and Kristen Stewart’s Diana was faultless.
If you are looking for a slightly warmer depiction of the royal family, I would recommend The Queen (2006), written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan. The Queen follows Elizabeth II, played by Helen Mirren, during the aftermath of Diana’s tragic death in 1997. In contrast to Spencer’s antagonism of the royals, it is a slightly more nuanced exploration into their relationship with Diana. While acknowledging claims that the monarchy was culpable in Diana’s downfall, the film sympathises with the Queen’s prioritisation of tradition and protocol in her largely criticised delayed reaction to the tragedy. Any sympathy won by the Queen is mainly due to Mirren’s performance, for which she earned an Oscar.
The film raises questions about the monarchy’s place: How can the monarchy modernise? Should we have a monarchy at all? In the year of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we will inevitably see increased conversation around this. If you are unsure of where you stand, turning to the screen may provide answers. If nothing else, film and television may lead you to see the royals in a new perspective.
Illustration: Elle Fitzgerald-Tesh