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‘The Crown’ Is a Tragic Royal Triumph

The controversial Season 5 of Queen Elizabeth’s family saga may be fictionalized, but it’s a ripping yarn

spinner image Imelda Staunton stars as Queen Elizabeth II in Season 5 of The Crown
(Center) Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Crown."

 The Crown, Season 5

After a two-year wait, the latest season of the smash hit about Britain’s royal family arrives on a tsunami of bitter criticism from friends like Judi Dench and those the show depicts — former Prime Minister John Major says the scenes of him comforting Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge) are “a barrel-load of malicious nonsense. They are fiction, pure and simple.”

But it’s highly plausible fiction, not pure and never simple, that makes us feel like we’re in the royals’ tormented heads and hearts and fancy castles in their darkest days, the 1990s.

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Staunton majestically conveys the Queen’s misery as scandals incinerate her dignity: topless Fergie getting her toe sucked by a boyfriend, the end of Prince Andrew’s marriage, Princess Anne’s divorce, and the public battle of Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), as even-tempered Major plays diplomat between the warring camps.

The arguments are too eloquent, the drama too superbly orchestrated to be literally true. We see the Queen’s need as head of the Church of England to oppose divorce, tragically forcing her to forbid her sister Margaret (ubiquitous star Lesley Manville) to marry the love of her life, Captain Peter Townsend (former Bond Timothy Dalton), and making Charles wed Di instead of his true love, Camilla (Olivia Williams).

We sympathize with each in turn, and see the cycles of tragedy as tradition violently collides with modernity. The Queen’s own marriage fissions, as Prince Philip (Sir Jonathan Pryce, a genius knighted by the real Queen) grows distant, and grows close to his godson’s wife, Countess Mountbatten (Natascha McElhone), a beautiful blond 32 years younger — she’s mourning her 5-year-old daughter’s cancer death and her own marriage’s decline. This makes Philip seem cruel to Elizabeth yet winningly sweet to the countess. I’ve never had one scintilla of sympathy for chilly Philip, but Pryce forces me to regard his heart.

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Elizabeth visits Russia, persuading ebulliently drunk President Yeltsin to exhume and properly rebury her cousins, the Romanovs, Russia’s royal family, who were shot, bayoneted and dumped in a mass grave by Bolsheviks in 1917. Philip gets in touch with his Russian Orthodox past, tells Elizabeth their marriage is a hollow sham, and bitterly criticizes her forebears (England’s king and queen in 1917) for refusing to rescue the Romanovs. He’s much more closely related to the doomed Russian royals than she, almost a lookalike for the assassinated Nicholas II. In fact, Philip’s DNA was used to confirm the identity of his relatives’ remains. The historical flashbacks are riveting. Di isn’t the only one who seems a prisoner of the crown, the victim of history as much as personal tragic flaws. When the Queen’s favorite castle burns down, the metaphor is obvious to all.

Don’t miss: Test Your Knowledge About the Netflix Hit ‘The Crown’ on AARP Members Only Access

spinner image Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki in a scene from Season 5 of The Crown
(Left to right) Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana.
Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Debicki brilliantly portrays Di’s deepening paranoia as scandal drives away her new love, Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed), and journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) convinces her that her best friends and in-laws alike are her deadliest enemies. You’ve heard about her infamous BBC interview with Bashir (“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”), but Debicki’s artful face conveys more than the real Di’s did.

West makes us feel Charles’ disappointment in his mismatch with the less intellectual, livelier Di, but also his deep dedication to the nation, his thwarted life cooling his heels in history’s waiting room, his smart, progressive ideas for reforming royal traditions. His post-divorce meeting with Di, ranging from fondly reminiscent to volcanically vindictive, is a master class in acting. So is the poignant reunion of Margaret and the dying Captain Townsend.

You get a similarly deep dive into the family drama of Diana’s last love, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), producer of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, whose incredibly overbearing, self-made Egyptian zillionaire dad Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) makes Prince Philip look like cuddly Mister Rogers. Yet we sympathize with the Al-Fayeds’ obsession with the royals — we share it! — and their outsider’s drive to conquer the heights of colonial society.

spinner image A family portrait of the Season 5 cast of The Crown
(Back row, left to right) Senan West, Will Powell, Dominic West, Elizabeth Debicki, Theo Fraser Steele, Claudia Harrison, Sam Woolf and James Murray; (Front row, left to right) Marcia Warren, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Lesley Manville.
Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Everybody gets an emotionally convincing inner life that rhymes with others’ plights — even John Major’s wife (Flora Montgomery) feels the pain when her husband neglects their marriage, caught up in the royal rumpus. Di and Elizabeth and Countess Mountbatten could relate. We get more deeply inside the hearts of Charles and Di’s kids Prince William (Timothee Sambor) and Prince Harry (Teddy Hawley) as their parents’ marriage falls apart. The show is really about the potential disintegration of two institutions: the crown and modern marriage.

It may not be literally what happened, but it is one overpowering family drama, and the most rewarding season yet of the hottest history show on TV.

Watch it: The Crown, coming Nov. 9 to Netflix

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.

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