A masterfully-acted period piece that explores Britain during an era of great cultural change, Netflix's latest drama The Crown is already earning predictable comparisons to Downton Abbey. But unlike the recently departed PBS series, The Crown, which focuses on the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), prioritizes realism above all else.
The Crown's dedication to historical accuracy is truly astounding, with much of the reported $100 million-plus budget likely going to the jaw-dropping costumes that are nearly indistinguishable from the lavish gowns, adorned uniforms and glamorous tiaras the royal family actually wore. As preparation for their roles, the actors also did their own extensive research, reading biographies, watching archival footage and even being assigned advisors to teach them the proper etiquette of the era.
But while this research provides The Crown with a basis of believability, it isn't enough to craft a compelling narrative, and it was up to the writers and actors to expose the private people underneath the royal family's well-documented public façade - a juxtaposition which provides the central conflict for The Crown's first season.
"In a sense, the whole series is about public and private," says John Lithgow, who plays Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "The monarchy, especially in England, is the extreme of that duality. They're a very private bunch of people who know their role very clearly, and that role has a lot to do with hiding their own personal selves."
In order to keep up public morale and support of the monarchy in the wake of World War II, The Crown picks up at a time when it's more important than ever that the royal family prioritize their duties to the monarchy above all else (although it's often only the recently crowned Elizabeth who is in any real position of power to make these hard, and typically unpopular, choices). But having watched her father George VI (Jared Harris) become king after her uncle abdicated the throne, Elizabeth is uniquely prepared for the challenges of finding oneself the unexpected figurehead of an entire nation.
"She saw at 10-years-old what that did to her family and did to [her relationship with her father], and how he found it very difficult but never complained," Foy tells TVGuide.com. "But I think she was more capable of being queen than her father was of being king. I think her sense of duty and her sense of the church and faith were very, very important and came from her dad. And the idea that she never wanted to let anybody down... But then I think the conflict in her is the morals and the love of her husband and children, and the idea of a life that she could have had and wanted, and having to equate duty with hurting people."
This constant negotiation between Elizabeth's personal desires and her duties as queen is where The Crown mines its most compelling drama. When her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) falls in love with divorcee Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), Elizabeth is forced to decide whether she will fall in line with the church (of which she is the head) and refuse the union, or follow her heart and stand up for her sister and against the outdated laws regarding remarriage.
Elizabeth's newfound duties as queen also create a multitude of conflict in her marriage to Philip (Matt Smith), a naval officer who was forced to abandon his career ambitions after King George's unexpected death in 1952. "When she becomes queen, that's a huge shift in their relationship. It's the shift," Foy says. "And definitely they don't' recover from it in the first [season]."
Prior to her ascension to the throne, Philip and Elizabeth "had a very conventional 1950s relationship," Foy explains. "She was supporting him [in his career]. She left the children at home, moved to Malta and that was their life. And they were having a wonderful time together and thought they had 30 years, and all of the sudden that implodes and he has to walk two steps behind."
"For the rest of his life," adds Smith. "Literally for the rest of his life from that day, he has to be subservient in public. And I think that conflict was difficult for both of them, privately and publicly."
This shift in gender power dynamics is particularly hard for Philip, who even bristles at the tradition that he kneel before Elizabeth during her coronation. But sadly for Elizabeth, men's inability to respect her - whether it be her husband, advisors or members of Parliament - becomes quite routine during her early reign, in which many attempt to manipulate and exploit the 25-year-old's inexperience. However, Elizabeth does strike up a close relationship with Churchill, who appears to be one of the few men able to appreciate Elizabeth's strength, cunning and skills as queen.
"He kind of took Elizabeth under his wing. He didn't know her extremely well in her youth, but I do believe he grew to know her very well, and they certainly depended on each other," says Lithgow. "He had become the prime minister for the second time at age 75 - way too old to be prime minster - and his position was very fragile. He needed her. He knew his task of educating her to be queen was essential. So he depended her, she depended on him. And out of that grew, we speculate, an extraordinary relationship."
By focusing on these intimate personal relationships in the context of an often neglected era of British history, The Crown manages to reveal unexplored perspectives on some of Britain's most famous figures — and challenge their current reputations. "We think we know a lot about the royal family and about Elizabeth and Philip, but actually we don't know that much," Smith says. "I learned a lot about the historical context of what the royal family did, and also the cultural context of the time politically."
"I just warmed to these characters really because I understood their emotional journeys much clearer," Smith says. "It changed my perception of Philip, so perhaps it will have the power to change other peoples' perceptions."
The Crown debuts Friday, Nov. 4 on Netflix.