TV, Writing

TV Review: THE CROWN (Season 4)

The fourth season of The Crown revolves around three of the most powerful, beloved and divisive women in 20th century British history: Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales.

That makes Season Four of Peter Morgan’s half-century-plus spanning political, dramatic opus perhaps the most anticipated year of the series to date. Filled with intrigue the post-WW2 years of Elizabeth’s coronation or the revolutionary state-led changes to British societal fabric of the 1960s might be, they struggle to hold a candle to the scandal-fuelled, politically thrilling 1980s as Her Majesty finds herself balanced between two very different wars. One between the newly-minted Thatcher and the people suffering thanks to her policies, with her one-woman quest to banish economic decline and revive moral-led, individualist British values in full flow. The other betwixt her son and heir, Charles, and his beautiful new wife, a woman who swiftly captured the heart of a nation.

Many viewers of this season of The Crown will have been there and recall this period of modern British history vividly.

Taking place between 1979 and 1990, I was a touch too young to remember key incidents play out here, born as I was in 1982, but having come into the world a mere three weeks before Prince William, I grew up acutely aware of Princess Diana as someone who meant a great deal to my mother. She encapsulated something the Royal Family had never encountered before and might never encounter again – a bridge between the huddled masses who still, at this stage, believed in the traditional pomp and ceremony of royalty, and the Royal line themselves. My mother had the Charles & Di wedding memorabilia. She bought into the marriage and was, like many, disappointed to see it begin to break apart.

The Crown brings to bear history that remains powerfully tethered to the world we now live in, to a greater extent than any season before. That adds to the expectation and, ultimately, doubles the disappointment when the end result isn’t quite as excoriating or far reaching as you want it to be.
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TV, Writing

Roy-al Dysfunction: SUCCESSION and the Self-Destructive Dynasty

Amongst the many trends available in television and cinema these days, the self-destructive family dynamic remains among the most potent and popular, except the targets are successively growing bigger in stature.
I have recently caught up on HBO’s Succession which, if you haven’t managed to catch it, truly is one of the finest pieces of drama anywhere today. With a third season on the way either this year or likely next—delayed, as much else, by Covid-19–Jesse Armstrong’s series has rocketed into the public consciousness following two incredibly strong opening seasons which focus on the Roy dynasty, a New York-based family in control of Waystar Royco, a multi-billion global news and entertainment multinational company, a family faced with challenges within and without as they strive to navigate an ever-shifting media landscape. Armstrong’s series is rich in Shakespearean plotting, razor-sharp writing, complex characterisation and laugh out loud black comedy which underscores a series which, ultimately, is about the self-destructive nature of exorbitant wealth on not just family, but humanity itself – both figuratively and literally. If Game of Thrones saw families physically stab each other in the back, Succession’s pain is psychological.

In watching the show, which Armstrong has worked hard to stress should not be interpreted as one particular family or another (but it isn’t hard to get a strong whiff of the Murdoch, or even Trump dynasties here), I’m left to wonder if part of Succession’s appeal is in watching people who have everything reduced to a personal, psychological nothing. The series is nominally concerned with the titular question of the successor to patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox, on brilliantly snarling form), with his grown up children variously positioning themselves to take over his sprawling, vastly lucrative empire, but the meat of the drama is in how Logan’s cruel, amoral lens on a world he is sucking dry belittles, damages and threatens to destroy his children along the way. As Logan’s brother Euan puts it in one episode, “In terms of the lives that will be lost by his whoring for the climate change deniers, there’s a very persuasive argument to be made… that he’s worse than Hitler.”. There is much current, real world relevance in what Succession deals with, but the heart of the drama, so finely balanced as it is with gallows humour that often resembles The Thick of It (which Armstrong also worked on), lies in how the rule of an empire is enough to destroy an entire family.
This feels like a tale that keeps being told. Succession follows Game of Thrones, or The Crown, even Ozark, in depicting the super-powerful lose their souls, or at the very least their happiness. I wonder… are we perversely enjoying their pain?
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Season Reviews, The Crown, TV

THE CROWN (Season 3) reveals the state of the monarchy (TV Review)

Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

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Essays, Film

ANON: The Quandary of the Joint Home/Cinema Release

Just to clarify, starting a title with Anon is not me trying to go all highbrow and Shakespearian on all of you.

It does of course refer to a new picture being released next Friday, starring Clive Owen & Amanda Seyfried, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, which is being promoted with a curious affectation: it is both being released in UK cinemas and on the Sky Cinema service as a premiere simultaneously on the same day. In a world where people worry about how Netflix Original movies are threatening to make cinema obsolete, this only adds fuel to the fire.

Now I haven’t seen Anon. My website Set The Tape was at the press screening and our guy there gave it a decent review, but the film didn’t set his world alight. I will refrain from judging Anon until I’ve seen it, and I will see it, but will I see it at my local cinema? Probably not, in all honesty. Why would I? I’m fortunate enough to have the means to have Now TV, and by extension Sky Cinema, so I can get home from work on Friday, grab a snack from the cupboard, put my feet up on my sofa, and watch Anon on my 45’ plasma. Alternatively I could travel five miles, pay for snacks, sit next to a stranger, and not even be able to stop the film for a cuppa. Again, why would I?

This sounds like I’m down on the cinema as an entity. I’m really not. There remains nothing like the experience of watching a movie on a big screen with an audience. Last year, I experienced the beauty of hundreds of people in hushed, hold your breath silence at the end of La La Land, or this year dozens of people crying out when that character suffers a potentially fatal blow in Avengers: Infinity War. You can’t replicate that at home on your couch. The honest truth, however, is that unless you’re an absolute fanatic with time to spare, a Cineworld Unlimited card (or variant), or it’s your job, you won’t watch everything at the movies. In this world, we have to pick and choose what we go and see.

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Season Reviews, TV

THE CROWN (Season 2) explores the price of royal marriage (TV Review)

The second season of The Crown has something of a difficult act to follow.

The first season, despite having a wealth of recognised talent in front of and behind the camera, and being the most expensive TV series ever commissioned by Netflix at a whopping £100 million, nonetheless was a gamble nobody expected the streaming giant to falter with. The Royal family can entice both loyalists and those who find the monarchy an outdated institution, so the fact it almost certainly garnered strong ratings alongside plenty of critical buzz, meant The Crown got off to a romping start, making an instantaneous star out of Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth II, and receiving plaudits and awards all over the place. Season 2, therefore, needed to keep up the pace.

Peter Morgan, writer of all ten scripts, plays the second season—set roughly between the years 1957 and up to the assassination of JFK roughly in 1963—as very much the second act of an opening two-part, aka two-season story. The Crown of course, famously, is planned to have six seasons which will replace the entire cast with age appropriate actors every two seasons. Season 3, therefore, won’t have Foy as Elizabeth, or Matt Smith as Prince Philip etc… should it happen (as of yet Netflix haven’t greenlit a third run but the chances are very high). These first two seasons of The Crown, consequently, are the first chapter in the life of Elizabeth and Philip, and if Morgan’s second run makes anything abundantly clear, this is very much the story of them both.

The story of a Royal marriage around which everything else pivots.

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Season Reviews, TV

THE CROWN (Season 1): efficient and dignified royal drama

The Crown could well end up being one of the most ambitious, grandiose television projects of the modern age.

Created by Peter Morgan off the back of his successful stage play The Audience, itself inspired by Morgan’s earlier script for Stephen Frears’ The Queen, it intends to depict the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, all the way through to the modern age, across six seasons. Budgeted at £100 million for the first season, already it’s one of the most expensive seasons of television ever produced, with Netflix investing significant capital into a project they’re very confident is going to go all the way. With a second season about to premiere and a third season in the planning stages, The Crown certainly looks as though it’s here to stay, and given how well put together its first ten episodes are, that can only be a good thing.

Morgan has become one of the pre-eminent screenwriters, if not the pre-eminent screenwriter, working in Britain today. He has also been consistently fascinated by the concept of monarchy, particularly Elizabeth II’s still ongoing reign. A decade ago, The Queen entered the public consciousness not just thanks to a stellar performance from Helen Mirren as the ageing monarch, but for depicting the Royal Family’s response to the death of Princess Diana, arguably as signature to the end of the 20th century for British subjects in terms of the Royals as Edward VIII’s abdication was in the early part of the century. Morgan zeroed in on an aspect which played a key role in The Queen, and indeed does in The Crown, for The Audience: Her Majesty’s audiences with successive Prime Minister’s across the decades.

This makes sense. Morgan is equally fascinated by the workings of government, particularly those of British Prime Ministers and the relationship with the United States across the last half century. His scripts have extensively featured Tony Blair in TV dramas such as The Deal and The Special Relationship, not to mention The Queen (played on all occasions by Michael Sheen). This fascination, this welding of government to monarchy and how the two are constructed in tandem, is a central function of The Crown and, indeed, to why the Netflix drama works so well. Morgan delights in making Winston Churchill a fully-fledged, fleshed out regular character (sublimely played by John Lithgow), with his own relationship with the young Elizabeth an important dynamic across the entire season, from a character and thematic perspective.

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