Review by JUSTIN REASH
The Crown, Netflix’s hit series dramatizing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is back for its third season, which premiered on Sunday, November 17. Gone after the first two seasons is the bulk of the cast, including Claire Foy (Elizabeth) and Matt Smith (the Duke of Edinburgh), who are replaced by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, respectively. Cast rotation is intended to be every two seasons, with seasons three and four set to cover the Queen’s reign from Harold Wilson through Margaret Thatcher.
A familiar face, however, does return to start season three: John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Improbable casting, at least in this writer’s eyes when first announced, Lithgow’s Churchill was one of the many strong points of the first two seasons. Putting aside the American actor’s towering height (at times he appeared to be leaning over Foy), Lithgow performed admirably within a heavily-dramatized script: from crying over the death of a girl in a London “Pea-Souper” fog to his gruff treatment of the young Queen. His Churchill “accent” is one of the best ever performed on screen, and Lithgow epitomizes Churchill’s natural intellect and magnetism without veering into parody.
Lithgow does not last long in season three, however, barely making it half-way through the first episode. The historical inaccuracies begin early, starting with the Queen reading that Churchill “has had another stroke” on the same day as the 1964 general election that brought Harold Wilson into Downing Street. In fact, these events were nearly three months apart. The next scene enters completely into the land of make believe when the Queen visits the dying Churchill at his home in Hyde Park Gate. She finds him resting in bed, where Churchill begins to rail against the new Prime Minister’s rumored Communist sympathies by referring to the “Iron Curtain.” In turn, Elizabeth proclaims, “you were my compass…what would Great Britain be without its greatest Briton.” We see Churchill fall asleep, and the Queen takes her leave by kissing him on the forehead. Reader, this encounter surely did not happen.
A few scenes later, the Queen receives a phone call announcing Churchill’s death. The depiction of the state funeral that follows is beautifully done but feels both rushed and glossed-over. It serves, however, as a natural point of transition in the Queen’s reign. With Churchill’s death, Elizabeth loses her “guardian angel”—another of the hyperbolic descriptions she bestowed upon him while he was barely conscious on his deathbed. Altogether, the first episode is designed to illustrate a change of eras. (The trailer for the season is appropriately set to a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”) Gone is an age of trust, as uncertainty enters in the form of Harold Wilson from Huddersfield.
Churchill’s presence is also felt in the second episode, when it is noted at the beginning that American President Lyndon Johnson did not attend Churchill’s funeral “due to the cold.” In fact, Johnson had become dangerously ill after being sworn in only a few days earlier in an outdoor ceremony on a freezing day in Washington (for the full story see FH 167, “An Unexpected Journey”). Once again, however, Churchill is used as a plot device to signify a new era, that of the American presidency. In stark contrast to Lithgow, though, Johnson is depicted poorly by Clancy Brown, who relies too much on tropes to inform his Texan accent and diction.
Churchill’s reputation has enjoyed a renaissance on both the large and small screens in recent years, and The Crown provides a new kind of platform for popularizing Churchill’s legacy. Netflix has millions of subscribers. Even though the company does not release viewing figures, the global audience for this enormously popular series must be in the many tens of millions at least. The Crown’s portrayal of Churchill is significant, therefore, even if he is only a secondary figure in the series. There is no hero-worshipping here, but Churchill is identified as a national hero. The Crown may use him primarily as a plot device, but there is something to be said for how the series allows Churchill’s achievements to be (mostly) applauded. In this age of revisionist history (check out Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast to know what I am specifically talking about), it is refreshing to see a major, high-profile artistic endeavor celebrate Churchill’s undeniably great role in history.
Justin Reash is Deputy Editor of the Churchill Bulletin and Finest Hour.