In a review of the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Dean Peter Elliott considers the intersection of royal fairy tales and sin.
An estimated 750 million people worldwide watched the wedding of Charles and Diana, sparking a renewed interest in the life of the British royal family. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on July 29, 1981, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie began his sermon, “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made: the Prince and Princess on their wedding day.”
The story of the courtship, marriage and deterioration of the relationship between the Prince and Princess of Wales is a primary narrative in Season 4 of “The Crown.” Set between 1979-1990 and written by award-winning playwright and film director Peter Morgan, Season 4’s ten episodes locate the drama of the royal family against the backdrop of historic events. In addition to the story of Charles and Diana (Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin), you see the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), the war in the Falkland Islands, the conflict within Northern Ireland including the assassination of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the rise of Nelson Mandela—all with the trials and tribulations of the royals in the foreground. Like other British dramas, “The Crown” makes for great TV: fine acting, wonderful costumes and sets, and an engaging narrative—ideal to binge while many of us are locked in at home because of the pandemic.
There should, of course, be a warning that it is not a historical record. Morgan’s script imagines what situations might have been like and what conversations might have ensued. He veers between spinning a melodramatic soap opera at worst or a morality play at best as Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and her family navigate the travails of life in the late 20th century. In many ways Morgan tells the story of how a privileged household encounters and deals with sin.
The seven deadly sins are on full display in Season 4 of “The Crown”: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; Morgan wants viewers to see the royals not so much as characters in a fairy tale but as bedevilled individuals with the same temptations and sins that encumber us all. As “The Crown” depicts it, this is a proud family unable to communicate, locked in patterns of isolation, lust and envy; they are beset with the indignities of secrets while greedily craving affectionate approval. Gluttony, wrath and sloth accompany the royals in their most privileged lives moving from grand dinners in country homes to duties in London at Buckingham Place.
It’s in one of the royal residences that we find Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), languishing in her suite of rooms: “The day stretches before me like a great, yawning void,” she laments. It’s hard to muster up much compassion for her. One of the princess’s companions, Derek “Dazzle” Jennings (Tom Burke), shares his newfound enthusiasm for Roman Catholicism: “Before I became a Catholic,” he says, “ I attended church. After I converted, I found a faith. The difference is night and day…. It’s not just the beauty, it’s the rigor of the Catholic Church. It demands complete submission, which strong, willful characters like mine—and, I would suggest, yours, Ma’am—need.” He invites her to join him, to submit to “something larger” to which the princess replies, “I would, but in case you hadn’t noticed, Dazzle, I‘ve already submitted to something larger. The royal family of the United Kingdom.” While in “The Crown” that conversation ends the relationship, records show that the princess and Fr. Jennings remained in close touch until his death just a few years later. Princess Margaret’s devotion to the life of faith was well known; in “The Crown” she is depicted as a bitter, lonely woman, trapped in her own world, envious of her sister and jealous of the Queen’s children, who outrank her in the line of succession.
In the season finale, Morgan scripts a conversation between Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and Princess Diana; the prince shares his frank assessment of the family dynamic: they’re all outsiders. “Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider, apart from the one person, the only person that matters.”
Lost, lonely, irrelevant outsiders: this is Morgan’s interpretation of the royals. In Season 4 their lives are falling apart: Diana’s eating disorder, the continuation of the affair between Charles and Camilla (Emerald Fennell), Princess Margaret’s discovery of hidden family members institutionalized because of mental disabilities: all this serves to further distance family members from each other. The Queen seeks to maintain her gracious presence but seems befuddled by the circumstances of the time and the behaviour of her children. It’s only when an intruder makes his way into the Queen’s private quarters—bringing with him the stories of the effects of Thatcherism on his life and community—that she seems to become aware of the devastating impact of austerity measures imposed on thousands of Britons.
Any hint that royals live a “happily ever after” life is dashed. Instead, you witness a family seeking to keep up appearances, an institution struggling to survive and a country in economic and political turmoil. Religion is relegated to public events like Lord Mountbatten’s funeral and, of course, the wedding of Diana and Charles, where Archbishop Runcie’s sermon was given. More apt than the archbishop’s comments about the “fairy tale” wedding are words that come later in his sermon: “But,” he preached, “royal couples on their wedding day stand for the truth that we help to shape this world and are not just its victims. All of us are given the power to make the future more in God’s image and to be ‘kings and queens’ of love.”
Season 4 of “The Crown” offers us a portrait of the royal family as victims within a deeply dysfunctional family, locked in an institution clearly in its last days. Unwittingly, I think, Morgan has written a moral fable apt for this pandemic time; with health regulations requiring many to shelter at home, the dysfunctions of our time have become more obvious. In the midst of this, TV, the internet and other media cater to our fascination with deadly sins and spin tales—tales that, like “The Crown,” leave us wondering how and whether much-loved customs, institutions and practices will survive the stresses of this time. Archbishop Runcie’s words are wise counsel as we move towards a new year. “All of us are given the power to make the future more in God’s image and to be ‘kings and queens’ of love.”