If The Crown season two can be said to be about one thing in particular, it’s marriage.
As a series, it’s one of the most thematically coherent Netflix offerings in some time; every facet of the programme dedicated to exploring different perspectives and experiences of love and marriage. It’s presented most obviously through the strain in Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage, yes, but reflected in the other characters too – from the tensions between new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his wife, or the unprecedented divorce between Philip’s right-hand man Mike Parker and his wife Eileen, to the more abstract ideas such as the marriage between Queen and country.
In a way, this is a stronger offering that last year’s; a subtle reframing of the difficulties faced by the characters, moving it away from the intricacies of royal life and contextualising the drama in more universal terms. The effect is slight, but significant – where previously the series didn’t quite convince, unable to emphasise the difficulties of the monarchy while at the same time glorifying the institution, here it works. Yes, the conflict is still borne of their privilege, but freed from the hagiography that dominated the first season, The Crown is now more able to present the people behind the privilege.
The fourth episode, Beryl, is an obvious example of this. Once more, it centres around ideas of marriage – here, though, it’s defined in its absence. Since last season, when she was denied the opportunity to marry Peter Townsend, little has changed for Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) – she’s living a hollow shell of her previous life, devoid of any meaningful companionship, moving from one breakdown to the next.
This changes, though, when she meets Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer.
It comes back to a portrait – a metonym that the series used to great effect last year, in the widely acclaimed episode Assassins, framed around a lost portrait of Winston Churchill. Here, the series invokes the infamous pictures of Princess Margaret taken by Armstrong-Jones to similar effect.
The scenes shared by Margaret and Armstrong-Jones are electric, in no small part due to the chemistry between Vanessa Kirby and Matthew Goode. Kirby deserves real plaudits for her performance here, detailed and mannered as it is; it’ll be particularly difficult to replace Kirby as The Crown continues, perhaps even more so than it will be with Claire Foy and Matt Smith. There’s a yearning intensity as the photos are taken, a palpable charge – it’s a powerful moment, the most captivating part of the episode. However, the real spine of Beryl is a single lengthy scene, set in Armstrong-Jones’ photography darkroom. It’s slow and considered, even indulgent – bathed in red light, it strips the characters back to their barest essence.
There’s something ekphrastic about it, as the episode realises the shock and intimacy represented by the photos. More than that, in fact – it’s here that The Crown realises its initial promise, moreso than anywhere else. “No one wants complexity and reality from us,” declares the Queen Mother. But that’s what the photos represent, candid and intimate as they are – and what The Crown delivers for Margaret.
As the episode closes, it takes the time to dwell on one final image. Elizabeth and Philip, going to their separate beds – the physical distance between them emphasised to show their growing emotional separation – juxtaposed with Margaret, alone again. But, perhaps, happier now.
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