Replacing a multi-award-winning cast with an entirely new bunch of actors is, to say the least, a bold move. Would it even feel like the same drama, we wondered? Could they really pull this off? Ever since Claire Foy and Matt Smith abdicated their positions as series leads, and ever since Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies stepped forward as their aged-up heirs, we – the loyal subjects of Netflix's The Crown – have been waiting (im)patiently for season three to arrive.
And I have good news, because: yes! The Crown remains excellent.
Sure, it takes a little bit of adjustment. That's partly because the new cast is so packed with British acting royalty – from Olivia Colman to Charles Dance to Helena Bonham Carter. Who's that familiar actor? You find yourself thinking. Oh, it's Derek Jacobi! But who's he playing? He must be the Duke of Windsor. But didn't that used to be Alex Jennings?
It could have been jarring, and sometimes it veers dangerously in that direction. But actually, the opening episodes do a smart job of introducing (or reintroducing) each character. Soon it seems only natural that Claire Foy's Queen Elizabeth II would grow up to be Olivia Colman, or that Princess Margaret would dramatically shrink from Vanessa Kirby's lofty height down to Helena Bonham Carter's diminutive size.
And most crucially, despite the different spin each actor puts on their own version of the character, there is a sense of continuity. This still feels like The Crown we know and love.
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Colman will, of course, be under the most scrutiny as she takes on the Queen. The Oscar-winner's performance is likely to divide viewers, because she's so – well – inescapably Olivia Colman; despite her impressively crisp pronunciation of "Philip" (Phé-lip), her distinctive voice sneaks its way through and her face is as expressive as ever. But even if she doesn't exactly disappear into the part, the actress gives us a pretty convincing Queen Elizabeth II.
And what about Game of Thrones and Outlander star Tobias Menzies? He has proven to be exactly the right actor to take us into Prince Philip's middle age. Menzies plays the Duke of Edinburgh with less charm and more self-absorption than his predecessor Matt Smith, but that's actually pretty solid character development as Philip gets older and grouchier.
One particular highlight of the new series is the moon landing episode, which captures the wider sense of excitement – while also telling a story of an Earth-bound Prince and his sense of thwarted ambition as he idolises these "men of action". He's not always likeable, but Menzies manages to make him engaging.
Season three also gives a lot of time to Princess Margaret, which is a wise decision.
While Olivia Colman has to look grim and stony-faced through most of the series, Bonham Carter gets to demonstrate her full range: exultant and miserable, partying and drinking and singing, loving and hating and fighting with her husband Tony Armstrong Jones (Ben Miles) and starting a scandalous love affair with a younger man. It's brilliant drama. Again, like her on-screen big sister Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter does have a tendency to be very Helena Bonham Carter – but boy is she fun to watch.
Compared to this, Colman is faced with the tricky task of playing a deliberately-dull character; because, frankly, Queen Elizabeth II can be a little bit boring (no offence, your Maj). She's a very ordinary woman in an extraordinary position, and (in The Crown at least) she knows it, too.
"I'm predictable, dependable, reliable," says a mournful Elizabeth in her sensible dressing gown as she compares herself to "spontaneous" Margaret. "Of those two I would pick dependability every day of the week," responds Philip, teasing: "You're a dazzling cabbage." The Crown suggests that these cabbagey qualities are a virtue in a constitutional monarch (and this is probably true), but a diet of vegetables can get boring after a while.
Writer Peter Morgan has dealt with this awkward truth by de-centering the story – a tactic we saw in the first two seasons, but which comes into play now more than ever as the Queen's kids grow up and begin to share the spotlight.
Erin Doherty is a standout star as no-nonsense Princess Anne, while Josh O'Connor is absolutely excellent as Prince Charles, perfectly straddling the line between sympathetic and pathetic.
As the series goes on, we see more and more of the heir to the throne as he struggles his way through his twenties. O'Connor's Charles is lonely and isolated; he craves his parents' respect and affection, but – in his mother's opinion – he is far too outspoken for a future King and far too full of self-pity and self-importance.
And most worryingly, he is also heading for a doomed love affair – because, in one of the moments we've been waiting for, season three of The Crown introduces us to Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell). Charles is head-over-heels for her, but there are two main barriers to his happiness: Camilla herself is already entangled with Andrew Parker Bowles, and Charles's own family have decided to sabotage the match. It's a messy tale of sort-of star-cross'd lovers and thankfully The Crown gives it the time it deserves to play out.
I say that partly because this season of The Crown has really upped the pace, racing through the years faster than ever. The season begins in 1964 with Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) getting himself elected as Prime Minister and spends the first seven episodes covering the rest of the 60s, including a deeply moving episode about the Aberfan disaster in Wales.
But after the 1969 moon landing, the final three episodes speed right through the 70s until we suddenly hit the Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee. That's quite a leap.
Season three really does leave a lot out (Richard Nixon! Rhodesia and Ian Smith! The attempted kidnap of Princess Anne!) – but then again, The Crown was never billed as a documentary and could not possibly be comprehensive.
Creator and writer Peter Morgan has always used the Queen's reign as a lens through which to look at 20th century Britain, carefully selecting certain events and characters to tell a wider story. And, with some creative licence, he covers many events in British history which we may not know or may have forgotten about. Was Harold Wilson suspected of being a KGB agent? (Yes, by some.) Was the head of the Queen's art collection a Soviet spy? (Yup.) Did Lord Mountbatten plot to overthrow the government? (Possibly.)
My one quibble is The Crown's weird forgetfulness about the Duke of Windsor and everything bravely covered in season two's episode six, "Vergangenheit", where the "grim realities" of the former king's relationship with the Nazis were laid bare. The Duke gets a far more sympathetic portrayal in season three as he heads towards his deathbed, and his family come off as unforgiving meanies. Seems like it'd be worth reminding viewers about his history!
These are really ten mini-movies, each beautifully shot and self-contained. But there is still a common thread running through all the episodes, and the central question of season three is this: what is the royal family's place and duty in a rapidly-changing nation when everything seems to be in decline?
The Crown season 3 arrives on Netflix on 17th November 2019