‘The Crown’ Reminds Us Why Constitutional Monarchy Is Awesome

‘The Crown’ Reminds Us Why Constitutional Monarchy Is Awesome

Netflix's new drama considers Elizabeth II's early reign, and the difficulties she confronts in a post-World War II world.
Gracy Olmstead
By

“The Crown” reminded me why so many Americans are Anglophiles. We are enamored with Kate Middleton and her rosy-cheeked children; we pore over Jane Austen novels; we watch BBC dramas over Earl Grey tea. But all these various strands of love share a singular appreciation for the traditional, ritualistic patterns of English life—so full of meaning and pattern.

This is, ultimately, what “The Crown” gives us. It paints a lavish, yet complex picture of English government, considering the role constitutional monarchy plays in making the country what it is. Many of us love the United Kingdom because—in direct contradiction with America’s prevalent pattern of innovation—it is a country allied to tradition, loyal to custom, fiercely protective of convention.

Rather than seeking to constantly modernize, it seeks to further the treasures of the past. We, despite our constant championing of individualism and progressivism, find ourselves entranced by its old-fashioned rhythms.

‘The Crown’ Is More Than a Romantic Drama

“The Crown” begins at a time when the United Kingdom faced a series of seismic cultural and political shifts. Elizabeth is in her mid-20s, on the verge of her marriage to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Her father, King George VI, is a sick man—struggling with lung cancer, crippled by the stress and pressure of his job as king. Winston Churchill has just been reelected prime minister, but is an older and less focused man, who struggles to fulfill the duties required by the position.

From the commercials of “The Crown” that aired prior to its release, I got the sense that this film focused on the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip—that it was sort of a romantic drama, chronicling the pressures that royalty and Elizabeth’s duties as queen placed on their marriage. Admittedly, that idea disappointed me. We already got a good (though perhaps slightly sentimental) version of that story in “The Young Victoria.” Considering the breadth of historical events that Elizabeth’s reign covers, it seemed there was much more scope for a series like this than relationship drama.

But while marriage and romance are decidedly factors in the series, it’s secondary to the larger struggle considered in “The Crown.” This film isn’t about Elizabeth and Philip. It isn’t even, to some extent, about Elizabeth. It’s about “the crown”: the role of monarch, and what it means.

The Power of Constitutional Monarchy

Constitutional monarchy is, some would argue, a rather strange sort of government. The British monarch does not rule his or her dominion with an iron grip; the monarch is a dignitary. The prime minister and Parliament do most of the actual governing, while the queen does very little. But, as Elizabeth’s grandmother tells her early into her reign as queen, that’s actually the point. “To do nothing is the hardest job of all,” she says. “And it will take every ounce of energy that you have.”

This will be a foreign idea (no pun intended) to many American viewers. We just spent an entire election listening to presidential candidates tell us how energetic and proactive they would be in their role as executive. They promised to fix all our problems, bring back our jobs, and heal our cultural wounds.

Admittedly, the role of U.S. president is perhaps more similar to a PM than it is to the British monarch. However, we’ve had little opportunity (at least lately) to observe such a constrained, hesitant, dignified sort of governance.

Yet “The Crown” shows us how vitally important such a role can be. Elizabeth isn’t a useless figurehead; she’s keeper of the country’s constitution. She defends all the mores and customs of the past. She preserves its values, religious and political. When the wild and changeful billows of cultural “progress” seek to undo tradition and unravel custom, she is supposed to safeguard both.

It’s a strange job; it’s a difficult job. And Netflix’s series shows just how hard it is for Elizabeth to balance such a role alongside her work as wife, mother, and sister. 

Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

Elizabeth II rose to the throne in a post-WWII, pre-Cold War world. England was between leaders, in a sense: Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, and Churchill are both portrayed in the latter part of their years. They’ve brought their country through traumatic and violent times, and Elizabeth must now endeavor to walk in their footsteps. The show doesn’t touch much on the foreign policy challenges she will face over the course of her reign, but it does consider the difficulties she faces as a young person, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth must also confront the changes rising on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Over the course of the series, she strives to balance her role as head of the church (and thus, preserver of traditional marriage) with the world’s changing ideas on issues such as divorce and infidelity. This becomes particularly difficult when her sister Princess Margaret wants to marry a divorced man, and urges her sister to assert her power as queen in accordance with popular trends.

“The Crown,” to its credit, does not easily adopt progressive judgments in portraying Elizabeth’s struggle with this decision. It would be decidedly easier for the show’s producer to show Elizabeth as a callous and austere prude in defending the church’s teaching. Instead, the series show us the pressure Elizabeth feels to do her duty as queen—to preserve and protect both the Church of England and constitution.

This Isn’t Just Another ‘Downton Abbey’

Beyond the fascinating historic and political facets of the show, “The Crown” offers sumptuous visual and auditory detail. The costuming and sets are scrupulously lovely, and the soundtrack is a haunting, lush symphonic score, composed by the famous Hans Zimmer. After the infamously great opening titles of “Stranger Things,” Netflix set a high bar for itself. But “The Crown” opens with a molten flow of gold, accompanied by the muted sound of wood instruments. As the gold slowly morphs into St. Edward’s Crown, the score builds in intensity. It’s fascinating, sets the mood extremely well, and mirrors the attention to detail we see throughout the series.

The series is, as David Sims puts it, “epic, often opulent, and certainly expensive-looking, but it’s light on soapy backstabbing and scandalous romantic twists. This is no Downton Abbey replacement—it’s a surprisingly granular, methodical look at British political life in the 1950s…”

But we don’t need (nor should we want) another “Downton Abbey.” While “The Crown” offers us lovely costumes and romantic drama, it is so much more than that. It’s a glimpse into a political office that is increasingly rare in our world. It’s a thoughtful look at a life fraught with responsibility and limitation—a life that, as we watch the series, we realize few would actually want.

What Might Future Series Offer?

One of the greatest surprises of this series was that—with the exception of some slight thematic elements and a couple naked views (from the back)—the show is surprisingly free of explicit content. It’s a refreshing change from many of Netflix’s other shows (such as “House of Cards”), and enables us to really focus in on the content of the story. It seems the producers are willing to include such content where it furthers the narrative, but aren’t seeking to mindlessly sensationalize their show. Hopefully they will continue to preserve this focus in the future.

Additionally, it would be fascinating to hear more of Philip’s back story in another series. From what I’ve read, his early life was rather troubled, and it would be interesting to include more of those details as the story unfolds, as they’re only slightly referenced in these episodes. It will also be interesting to see how the series deals with Elizabeth’s children, and their lives in the limelight.

The question Elizabeth—and we—begin to consider by the end of Netflix’s 10-episode series is this: “Is it all worth it? The preservation of tradition, the upholding of customs and order, the forsaking of all else for the sake of duty—is it worth it?”

Many Anglophiles—enamored as we are with England’s history, all the way back to the Magna Carta and beyond—would say yes. It will be interesting to see what the series’ Elizabeth decides in episodes to come.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Prince Philip is Duke of Edinburgh, not Mountbatten.

Gracy Olmstead's writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead

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