It seemed like a radical idea. Take a celebrated, award-winning cast of an award-winning television show and replace almost every one of them after two seasons. But that’s exactly what Stephen Daldry and company have done with “The Crown,” and the result is sheer perfection.
The series tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II, and Claire Foy played the part will grace and dignity for two seasons, from the months before her ascension in the 1940s through the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Certainly, they could have allowed Foy to carry on the role, aging her up with makeup and prosthetics and perhaps some digital enhancements. Instead, they chose to go a radically different direction by recasting the part with Academy Award winner Olivia Colman.
The third season opens almost exactly where the second left off. This feels somewhat jarring at first as the audience tries to figure out how much time has passed. After all, the queen has aged a bit since we last saw her, a fact that is played with a wink in the first episode, titled “Olding.” Colman’s Queen Elizabeth is different from Foy’s. Their manner of speaking is similar, but not quite the same. Their style of dress is different. The chemistry between Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip (now played by Tobias Menzies) is different. Her relationship with her sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) feels altered. And yet, by the end of the first episode, it feels as though these really are the same people we have followed through nearly two decades of their lives.
Season three of “The Crown” moves the royal family forward into the late 1960s. The people of the United Kingdom question the need for a royal family, particularly one that is so clearly out of touch with the people. Prince Philip makes strides to humanize the family, but his intentions backfire as the government faces turmoil, coups attempts, and economic instability.
Olivia Colman is mesmerizing as Queen Elizabeth moves into middle age. Colman possesses the grace and stoicism we expect to see in the monarch who was taught from a young age to suppress emotion. This becomes important when a natural disaster destroys a school in the Welsh town of Aberfan and kills dozens of school children. It is a tragedy that tests the queen and gives Colman the chance to dig deep into the heart of a woman many have considered emotionless.
The first two seasons gave us a Philip (Matt Smith) who whined about not having a place as he lived in the shadow of his wife. The new iteration of the Duke of Edinburgh still sees him struggling, but trying to find more productive ways to use his energy. Tobias Menzies is a strong presence in this cast and his Philip is sometimes endearing, but more often slightly terrifying. His relationships with his son and his mother sag beneath the weight of a man who always feels out of place. Where Smith was a good Prince Philip, Menzies is a great one, portraying a man that is much more recognizable to us not just in look but in attitude and demeanor.
Times have changed for Princess Margaret, too. Much like Philip, Margaret has never been comfortable in her sister’s shadow. She knows she’s capable of more, but she’s never truly been free to express herself. Helena Bonham Carter brings her wit and charisma to a Margaret who is increasingly uneasy about her place in the family. As she watches her niece and nephews grow, she becomes ever more wrapped up in her awareness that she is allowed to be little more than a curiosity to the outside world. Taking over the character from Vanessa Kirby, Carter carries some of the same air of loneliness and isolation. Princess Margaret is something of a Jan Brady and Carter is best when she gets moments to assert herself.
The children have grown and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) in particular have become real, participating people in the story. O’Connor has some moments to shine, particularly in an episode that highlights Charles and his investiture as the Prince of Wales. We still have some time to go before he meets Diana Spencer, although Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) is in the picture.
As much as everyone looks forward to the eventual disaster that is the marriage of Charles and Diana, the most interesting of Queen Elizabeth’s children is, in fact, her only daughter, Princess Anne. Played by Erin Doherty, Princess Anne is quite the opposite of her discontented aunt. Instead, Anne is fine with her station as the third in line to the throne, and takes the opportunity to do good with her position. Doherty is sweet and mellow, giving a kindness to Anne that would normally be suited to something in the background. But Anne is the quiet voice of reason when the people around her are on the edge. Doherty’s instincts imbue Anne with a wholesome humanity that is easy to miss in the rest of the family, while also giving her a sense of humor that also sets her apart.
The new season of “The Crown” is different, but in all the right ways. This is a show that can continue into the 21st century and remain as compelling and engaging as when it began. Between the polo matches and the romantic quadrangles of the rising generation, the older generation still has a lot of work to do and plenty of story left to tell.