In a case of art that mimics life, the inclusion of Princess Diana on the Netflix series enlivens the royal family.
(Editor's Note: The following review contains spoiler for the fourth season of "The Crown" and British history between 1979 and 1990.)
Like the good public school types that they are, the British royal family is not overwhelmed by those trying to step into their inner circle.
It is known as "The Balmoral Test" and involves busy bouts of outdoor activity at the Queen's Castle in Scotland. (Roam steep hills in mud! Chase deer to kill! Wear unironically tartans!)
The fourth season of "The Crown" debuts on Netflix November 15, and early on you learn that Margaret Thatcher was wearing high heels, Balmoral brought a briefcase and a grin, and clearly failed the test catastrophically. Diana Spencer wore boots, bangs and a cute smile and passed with flying colors.
In the end, however, both lose the bigger game of conquering The Firm.
After a subpar third season, it turned out that this ongoing narrative from Queen Elizabeth really needed an enemy – or two. In a season of the most audience pressure in pop culture – there is no doubt because of the Princess Diana factor that people who have never seen a second of "The Crown" will tune in – Peter Morgan's show delivers its am best yet.
With Thatcher played by Gillian Anderson and Diana, a near-impossible role that Emma Corrin looks effortlessly without delving into hagiography, "The Crown" gives a compelling look at a decade that codified calloused excess in public and private life Characters.
Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of others and leaving Olivia Colman on the sidelines to react – as was the case in season 3 – Colman can now have the authority of the monarch in her performance. And with slides like Anderson and Corrin, all three deliver very brittle and beautiful performances.
Liam Daniel / Netflix
The great fear was that the meetings between Anderson and Colman between Prime Minister and Sovereign could be reduced to the tropics: either "It's time for girl power, Tory style!" or "Oooh Catfight!" Thankfully, this is avoided altogether by having both actors show their skills in the most unobtrusive and devastating ways available to them.
Morgan was the 2013 playwright for The Audience, which featured the weekly meetings between the Queen and her long history as Prime Minister, and won Tonys for Helen Mirren (guess who) and Richard McCabe as Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Colman has extensive stage experience, most recently in 2017 in "Mosquitoes" at the Royal National Theater in London. Anderson has received three Laurence Olivier Award nominations, including one for the 2019 production of All About Eve.
As a result, the scenes between these two are a study of the intricacies of performance dynamics and the differences in parenting, framed in such a way that they can be read as nicely on a television screen as they are in the West End. What you see is Anderson as the Thatcher, who kinks particularly deep at a given moment, or Colman as the Queen, who takes a calculated move to end the audience. What you understand is that Thatcher doesn't understand why someone with an inherited title should have more power than she, and the Queen's firm determination to keep Thatcher in her place.
Yes, yes, yes, it is well and good to ponder the wounds caused by the vicissitudes of the British class system. So let's get to the part about Prince Charles and Lady Di, rich people in bloody love. Or "Whatever love means?" when Charles asked excruciatingly at his engagement press event when Diana withered beside him. This famous public cringe moment is recreated in "The Crown," and is one of the reasons this has long been the time frame when the show was at greatest risk of turning into shadow puppets.
Des Willie / Netflix
Charles and Di's moments have been covered a million times in various news clips and documentaries. You can always watch the entire interview with the terrible engagement on YouTube. Josh O’Connor as Charles, Corrin as Diana, and Emerald Fennell as Camilla Parker Bowles are very grateful as they all find multi-layered emotional textures to add to the footage that has been part of pop culture for decades.
Corrin in particular does a hell of a job. This isn't Diana with a glamor of a sad princess locked in a tower – multiple episodes open due to the graphical representation of her eating disorder with content warnings. The show doesn't act shy: Diana was a particularly childlike, very young woman who checked all the boxes for “virginally beautiful young princess” – and beyond that perfectly written résumé, there wasn't a second thought about her Mental Health. She is shown without the emotional ability or maturity to understand that this is not a love story. It's a job to fill the global complexities of a role in a cool, treacherous family.
Corrin doesn't strike; Your Diana is engaging and frustrating, sweet and calculating. She's smart and silly and irritable. She is world famous but hungry for attention. Corrin spins until she collapses as she dances, all desperate, sharp, frenetic energy and no joy. It is a complex portrayal of a complex person who is fully aware of but is not burdened by the mythology surrounding the character.
Diana was an Instagram king decades before there was such a thing, and through gestures like the famous hugging a child with HIV in the hospital, the princess tried to kill the crown with her kindness. It's something that an eternally battle-ready Thatcher would never imagine – but it's also something the Queen would never think of. But why shouldn't they? What do we expect from our sacred institutions and why? If we can think of better and more humane treatment, why don't we need it?
Des Willie / Netflix
These are weighty questions, and they are asked on a show that is relentless in its ability to spread the power of its characters through scenery and spectacle. It goes without saying that the production design, hair, makeup and costumes on "The Crown" remain superb – there's a reason the show was named "Outstanding" during its three season run at Emmys Period Costumes “is undefeated.
The series should continue this year, if only by combining a wedding gown inspired by Princess Diana's voluminous meringue and the lifelike pink plaid ensemble that the lonely princess wears to roller skate at Buckingham Palace. (Corrin also wears a sweater with embroidered llamas – also based on an outfit Diana wore. The 80s were a lot.)
Not only does Morgan revel in the dry, candy-colored story of Charles and Di, but he routinely explores ideas of classicism, privilege, sexism, and racism. But this time the undercurrents emerge in a way that is timely, concise, and ultimately clearer and hopeful: if England can survive Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister for eleven years, the United States will survive four years from President Donald J. Trump and the cowardly GOP leadership.
This isn't a particularly sunny setting. The cruel deprivation, humiliation, and devastation of the Thatcher years is the basis of several episodes over the course of the season. A war was started out of absurd personal motivation (Greetings to former President George W. Bush! Some of us have not forgotten that you are a war criminal!); institutional racism has been fortified and encouraged for oligarchic profit; Public funds have been diverted from the marginalized in the genuinely cold-blooded notion that there are no implicit biases in society. It's just that some are lazy and choose to suffer.
All of this is known. Very painful, annoyingly familiar. But as "The Crown" shows this season, the monarchy was built with a steel back and ice in its veins to withstand any rush that came its way.
"The Crown" season 4 will be available on Netflix on Friday November 15th.