Sunday, December 11, 2016

December Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- THE CROWN: Smoke and Mirrors

"Oils and oaths, orbs and scepters, 
symbol upon symbol, an unfathomable web 
of arcane mystery and liturgy
no clergyman or historian or 
lawyer could ever untangle.
Who wants transparency 
when you can have magic? 
Who wants prose 
when you can have poetry? 
Pull away the veil and 
what are you left with? 
An ordinary young woman of 
modest ability and little imagination. 
But wrap her up...
anoint her with oil 
and presto... a Goddess!" spoken by Alex Jennings, 
playing The Duke of Windsor, 
former King Edward VIII, 
The Crown, Episode 5, "Smoke and Mirrors"

So be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.... Thus began the unexpected reign of Queen Elizabeth II, 'Defender of the Faith', sworn not by a member of the judiciary or the government but rather anointed by Anglican clergy. The visual montage commencing each of The Crown's 10 episodes is of molten metal pouring, sliding, and congealing into filagreed golden regalia (crowns and such) -- images that, along with a sweeping score, plunge you into the royalty thing with timeless grandeur.

Although 'Divine Right of Kings' mostly disappeared itself with Enlighten-ment thinking in the late 18th century, English ceremony would have you attribute god-like qualities to the ruler -- that is how Elizabeth was raised and instructed by her family, her prime ministers, and secretaries. No longer woman, wife, mother she is now answerable to God, submitting her will to monarchy. This had the effect of tying Elizabeth to the past like the Pope, and the Anglicans are almost as slothful as Rome. In this treatment both the Queen and Philip know that church and state must be separate, but always dutiful, she has complied with church authority.

Peter Morgan (shown above), screenwriter of this lavish and complex undertaking (Netflix paying a reputed 100 million for 20 episodes) does not let the royals off lightly. The Queen survives crises at her own and her family's expense; she rules with equal resolve and regret, her composure barely masking discomfort. The excellent Claire Foy (Wolf Hall, Upstairs, Downstairs, Vampire Academy) bears the burden of all this show. We see the young Queen and her dashing naval husband, Philip Mountbatten (the quirky Matt Smith of Dr. Who) struggle mightily to navigate a marriage in which the spousal relationship could not be more upside down from the mores of the 1950's.

Philip, naval commander and great-great grandson of Queen Victoria, has his hopes dashed of continuing his career when father-in-law, George VI, died young. Resentfully putting up with perceived indignities, he knelt before his wife at coronation, paced behind her in public. His children would be named Windsor not Mountbatten. Philip squirms, chafes, and gripes. On a world tour designed to buck up the image of British Dominion, he exclaims that the royal pair are the coat of paint; 'waving like lunatics, a circus trudging from town to town like dancing bears'; or this: 'my work is as a navel officer -- not grinning like a demented ape while you cut ribbons'. He wakes from dreams with his arms in the air -- waving. However, Philip has soldiered on and been a modestly effective populist force for modernization. (Was all that contrariness a desire for progress or pique at the diminution of his own patriarchy?)

A divorce meme percolated through the lives of the Windsors, bookending the first 10 episodes. Edward VIII ( David to his family) became king in January 1936 and abdicated late that year to marry his paramour, twice-divorced American social climber Wallis Simpson, thrusting his shy, stuttering younger brother, Elizabeth's father, on the throne as George VI. Ending the series is the story of her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who fell in love with her father's equerry (assistant), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), also divorced (both, 2 pictures below). Margaret was stopped first by the Cabinet and finally by the Queen, her hand forced by church dictates -- divorced parties with living ex-spouses were not welcome at court until 2002.

The abdicate-king, retitled Duke of Windsor, is a snide observer of the monarchy and his royal relatives (see quote at top). The disgraced pair (above) lived abroad after abdication becoming "society's most notorious parasites...while they thoroughly bored each other". (Wrote Wallis, "You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.") The Duke visited England alone where his mother, Queen Mary, shamed him and he's spurned by his niece the Queen, her mother, and church authorities. All blame him for shirking his duty to rule, causing, they think, the early death of his brother, King George VI (an addicted smoker -- need one say more) and robbing the young Elizabeth of a simpler life out of the spotlight. Morgan reimagines considerable pain spread around as he deploys family resentments.

Gelignite perfectly titles the episode about Princess Margaret's love affair with Peter Townsend that exploded like a bomb in the press, not the least due to Margaret's flamboyance and the vanity of Townsend. Elizabeth, wishing happiness for her sister, makes promise after promise to the couple, but as she wades deeper into the labyrinthine reality of realm, she is forced to go back on her word (below, sisters at odds). If Margaret takes Townsend she will be forced into abdication like their uncle. The repetition of her Uncle David's humiliations was more than Margaret could take.

Some have described Elizabeth as jealous of her sister's popularity and her recall of Margaret from the spotlight as spite; I saw Elizabeth as duty-bound to preserve the proper order of things ("since the crown has landed on my head"), including the sacrosanct image of the royal family. She tells her lively sister: "...the monarchy should shine, not the monarch."

The depth of the emotion aroused in 'The Crown' surprises, since we know the story. One's satisfaction in this mini-series (and two other good ones: Parade's End and Wolf Hall) is not about 'what happens' but the emotional experience and interior lives we come to share with the protagonists --moments of daily life 'pinned to the page' (a phrase of Hilary Mantel, author of the "Wolf Hall" novels) . Here we know fear, pain, and maturing resolve of the Queen, humiliation and acting-out by Philip, hate and loss in the Duke of Windsor, and the despair of Margaret (whose premature death was also smoking-related). "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" (Shakespeare).

We share interiority with one other major figure in 'The Crown' -- aging PM Winston Churchill, brilliantly acted by our own John Lithgow who shrinks height but not moral or physical weight as he comes to life. Churchill mentors his Queen, crafts his moments in the limelight (below he's staged a late arrival to Elizabeth and Philip's wedding), manipulates his subordinates, and confronts aging and illness. Ach, the humiliation! Lithgow was genius casting. Churchill also offers example of a relentless visual through the 10 episodes, an enemy of golden regalia, that is tobacco smoke streaming unnoticed, poisoning the mightiest among them.

"The Crown" is in my view a complete triumph of drama; its sumptuous beauty balanced by the dreary tedium, hypocrisy, and vapidity of royal duty -- all that smoke and mirrors. The archaic and mystical connection to the church may reach back to Alfred the Great, for whom the church was the repository of learning, law, and order -- at that time bright hope in dark medieval Europe. But in a modern world of civil order, one wishes that English monarchy could reinvent itself without fake holiness. Would its role vaporize?

A small note: the casting and acting is close to flawless, with minor exception. Jared Harris (above r), a fine actor, still could not make me suspend disbelief because he looks so unlike King George VI (above, l) no matter how well Harris plays death's door from the opening scene. Greg Wise (Mountbatten) has the Windsor look. The small girls who played young Elizabeth and Margaret were perfect, easy to picture growing up into the adult sisters. At any rate, for anyone into modern royalty, "the Crown" is 5-Star worthy. Below, from l, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), Prince Philip (Matt Smith), Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), Queen ''Mum" Elizabeth (Victoria Hamilton).

Overheard at Downton Abbey, 
via Violet, Countess of Grantham: 
"You Americans never understand 
the importance of tradition." 
Mrs. Levinson: "Yes we do; 
we just don't give it power over us.
Maybe you should think of letting go of its hand." 
...from Season Three, Episode One 

Life's but a walking shadow, 
A poor player 
 That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. 
It is a tale 
 Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
 Signifying nothing.  
...from Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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