The Crown season three opens with Queen Elizabeth II facing away from us: a powerful silhouette, perfectly poised. Her crown, however, is not the true focus; rather her burdened shoulders are. These are new shoulders. Claire Foy has passed the bejeweled scepter to Olivia Colman as the regent enters a new era. With the passing of a father figure, Winston Churchill, and anti-monarchists rounding out Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s cabinet, Elizabeth II finds trust harder to come by. Despite this shifting landscape, The Crown’s latest season takes far too much pride in its consistency.
As with any season of The Crown, the writers have a lot to cover, including the Aberfan disaster and the Apollo 11 moon landing. But stripping away the specific events of the 60s and 70s reveals that is it very much business as usual for the hit Netflix drama. Princess Margaret’s love life continuously proves to be a tricky beast, and it doesn’t help that she is probably vitamin D deficient from sulking in her older sister’s shadow; the royal family must again contend with a press insistent on its immense privilege and obsolescence; the Queen continues to be consumed by the tumultuous politics of the day. As if running on an opulent treadmill, The Crown presents us with familiar themes.
It takes Prince Charles’ entrance to rupture this stasis. Now an adult (and played by the dashing Josh O’Connor), he must grapple with his complicated identity leading up to his Investiture as the Prince of Wales, his status as the heir apparent and his affection for Camilla Shand.
Charles stands out because he is the only character with a flowing arc. Atypical to this era of television, but much like elements of season two, the episodes of season three are distinct chapters. In his attempt to create a seamless transition between seasons, writer-creator Peter Morgan has muddled the clarity of a unifying plotline. Not only is there an uphill climb in the aspiration for seamlessness because of the two-year-long hiatus, but the significance of recasting the whole show seems to have gone unappreciated; the new actors inevitably bring their own styles and heritage which are distinct from Foy and company. We need more time to get to know the new actors.
Yet the cast charges onwards. Colman presents us with an older, more subdued Elizabeth II. Although her performance may sparkle less than her predecessor’s, Colman’s expressions and dialogue are abundantly supplied with emotional intricacy and experience. In contrast, Helena Bonham Carter channels Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Princess Margaret. She is a much-needed injection of vivacity and theatricality, even if these qualities are slightly weathered from emotional wear and tear.
Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip stands out as the only actor attempting an impression of his real-life counterpart. This damages Morgan’s ambition for a smooth transition given the differences between this new portrayal and the style Matt Smith previously established. Therefore, it is O’Connor’s performance as Charles which stands out. The God’s Own Country actor fully captures the frustration of being a king-in-waiting and the melancholy of a broken heart. Also worthy of mentions are Charles Dance (bringing his usual intimidatory presence to the role of Lord Mountbatten) and Jason Watkins (as the mousey Wilson).
While most of the performances deserve crowns, some sets and set pieces let The Crown down. There is a moment early in the new season where a betrayal deep within the British establishment is uncovered. Despite the gravity of the situation, the execution of the sequence is vapid, not coming close to match season two’s dramatic revelations of the Profumo affair and Edward VIII’s relationship with the Nazis. And although most of the production design and graphics are the finest money can buy, there are a few glaring moments that tempt you to reach through and tug at the obvious green screen.
What are praiseworthy, however, are the various directing talents of Benjamin Caron, Christian Schwochow, Jessica Hobbs and Sam Donovan, who evoke different genres with their episodes. ‘Aberfan’ feels like a disaster film, ‘Coup’ is a political thriller and ‘Tywsog Cymru’ is Charles’ coming-of-age story. This is all set to a rich, lithe and tonally sensitive score. But these assets may not prove sufficient to paper over the cracks now emerging in the Buckingham Palace wallpaper.
Season three is unlikely to attract viewers who are not already committed to The Crown, especially while it seems to be operating on only 80% capacity. What ought to have been the triumphant return of an acclaimed show — led by a popular, Oscar-winning actress — ultimately feels pedestrian compared to its earlier successes. The tiara still glitters but it has lost some of its shine.