The Crown season 4 review: Netflix drama's latest outing is uneven - but the Charles and Diana story is told brilliantly
Emma Corrin shines as Princess Diana, teaming up with Prince Charles actor Josh O'Connor to let us into the dramatic royal relationship.
Oh, it's the most wonderful time of the year, because The Crown is here! In deepest November, mid-lockdown, let's all settle down to some proper event TV. But hasn't it all gone so quickly? It seems like only yesterday that the Queen was a bright-eyed Claire Foy ascending the throne, and now she's stern Olivia Colman playing the role of The Institution of Monarchy with minimal humanity, and the next time we see her she'll be Imelda Staunton. They grow up so fast.
Ahead of the season four launch on 15th November, you'll be wondering: does this next batch of 10 episodes live up to the show's reputation? Is season four worth the hype? And what about the The Crown's big newcomers, Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson)? So, in the most spoiler-free way I can manage, I'll tell you.
A disclaimer: the following review might read quite critically for a four-star-er. But one of the reasons I can't help being critical is that I'm a huge fan of The Crown, and I thought season four was really quite... uneven? Sorry, Netflix! Some of the episodes and storylines were absolutely fantastic and reminded me of why I love this show so much, and some of them were disappointing. Even, dare I say it, irritating. But still: good enough for four stars. Just.
So this is the season which covers The Diana Years (part 1) and The Thatcher Years (the entirety). We start in 1979 with Conservative politician Margaret Thatcher newly elected as the first female Prime Minister, and we finish with her exit from Number 10 in 1990. Meanwhile, within the Royal Family, Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) is being urged to get on with finding a suitable wife instead of spending all his time on the phone with his married lover Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell); accordingly, Charles marries Princess Diana in 1981. Historical spoiler alert: this does not go well.
The Netflix drama also goes down some other interesting routes. One episode follows the story of Buckingham Palace intruder Fagan, played by Bodyguard's Tom Brooke; another introduces us to Dazzle Jennings, a soon-to-be Catholic priest and close friend of Margaret's. We go off on one royal tour to Australia, and we meet some of the Queen's lesser-known relatives. We see both Philip and Charles respond to Lord Mountbatten's death, and how that plays into the tricky relationship between father and son.
In terms of the Queen herself, we do spend quite a lot of time exploring the sometimes-strained relationship between the PM and monarch, who are shown uniting on the Falklands War and then clashing on sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Their working relationship is prime material for drama.
But by and large, this is the story of the 'younger' generation of Royals – and when I look back across all 10 episodes, it is the Diana/Charles story which defines season four of The Crown. Their scenes are the ones I will remember most.
Rising star Emma Corrin is, thank goodness, excellent as Diana. This reviewer was too young to really follow the story of Diana's life and death at the time – being only five when she died – but having hit up the history books and various biographies, and having watched the clips on YouTube, The Crown's version of Diana seems pretty spot-on. Corrin plays her as a people-pleasing, hopeful 19-year-old caught up in a romance that everyone around her wants to succeed; but by the time she realises that her 32-year-old Prince's heart belongs to someone else, and that he's unwilling to let her in, it's too late.
For his part, Josh O'Connor does an excellent job as Prince Charles, which can't have been easy. In season three he was often sympathetic, especially as a misunderstood young man – but in season four he's a fully-grown adult, and we see the escalation of his feelings of victimisation and self-pity, and his total inability to put himself in the shoes of his new wife. Almost every scene with Diana brings out the worst in him, and many of those scenes are heart-breaking to watch. This is The Crown at its best.
We know by her own account that Diana struggled with bulimia, and there has been plenty of speculation ahead of time about how The Crown would handle this. Having seen the episodes, which are prefaced by sensible content warnings, my feeling is that the portrayal of Diana's eating disorder is well-handled. It's not sensationalised, it's not over-simplified, but it is an ever-present part of her life.
Now we turn to Gillian Anderson as Thatcher. In visuals and mannerisms and the words that come out of her mouth, Anderson is Thatcher through and through. The performance might even win her an Emmy. But I have to say, I was surprised by the positive reaction online to her 'Margaret Thatcher voice' after the trailer came out – because it us one of the things that bothers me. I think Anderson's version is too strained and... raspy? Breathy? I just want to give her a cough sweet.
Here comes another criticism: I think some of the dialogue in season four is too on the nose – and some of the symbolism is too heavy-handed. With such a strong cast, I do feel like showrunner Peter Morgan and his team could have let the actors do a bit more showing-not-telling. I don't want to give any spoilers before fans have had a chance to watch the show, but I kept thinking of the line from Futurama: "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"
Speaking of the show's strong cast – in some ways it seemed a shame not to see more of Erin Doherty's Princess Anne, or to properly meet Prince Andrew's bride Sarah Ferguson (Jessica Aquilina). Even Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) gets less screen-time in this season, and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) is more of an ever-present background figure.
But equally, it's understandable that Peter Morgan has had to be selective rather than exhaustive – and that he's inclined to shape facts to fit the narrative. You don't want the story to sprawl out of control, pulled here and there by its massive ensemble cast; you need it to have focus. The more you think about it, the harder it must have been to shape this chunk of the story into something coherent.
The Crown season four is a success, by and large – especially when it comes to Charles and Diana – but at times I did feel it was uneven and imperfect. And with the air date almost upon us, I can't wait to see if my fellow The Crown fans agree.
Find out more about Charles and DianaDid you know Prince Charles dated Diana's sister Sarah Spencer?
It turns out there was a lot more to Charles and Diana's marriage than we thought.
Princess Diana and Princes Charles' Australia tour went down a storm, but left a sour taste in the mouths of some...
Find out more about Margaret ThatcherThe Queen and Thatcher's relationship is fraught at times in The Crown, and it seems the series might not have been too far away from the truth...
The Crown show's Mark Thatcher go missing during a motor rally – what's the truth behind that?
Interested in learning more about Denis Thatcher? We have everything you need to know about Margaret's husband.
The Crown season 4 will be released on Netflix on Sunday 15th November 2020. Looking for something else to watch while you wait? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, visit our TV Guide, or find out about upcoming new TV shows 2020.