The Crown season 6 part 1 review: Diana's final days take focus in flawed run
Elizabeth Debicki gives a stunning performance in a batch of episodes weighed down by structural issues.
There will no doubt be a great deal of hesitancy for some viewers going into The Crown season 6. One can only imagine the weight of responsibility felt by the show's writers as they attempt to grapple with this next chapter in the Royal Family's story.
Of course, anyone who watched the last season and has any degree of historical knowledge will know what's coming next. This season will be the one to dramatise the death of Princess Diana, a tragedy which still lives in the consciousness of the nation.
The task that creator Peter Morgan and his team of writers had on their hands is an unenviable one. They had to sell the profundity of the moment without sensationalising it, and sensitively depict a passing which for many is still raw, all these years later.
Thankfully, for the most part, they succeed in getting this balance right, in no small part thanks to the astonishing work of Elizabeth Debicki.
Just as she was in season 5, Debicki is flawless as Diana, in a season which focuses so intensely upon her. Her relationship with Dodi is impressively examined with nuance and depth, with a strong performance by Khalid Abdalla aiding this along. It means the pain of both of their losses is all the more keenly felt.
However, there are issues which stop this season being as engrossing and effective as previous outings, many of which are structural.
First and foremost, it was a mistake to split the release of this season. It may have become a staple of Netflix's final seasons of late, but in doing so these four episodes end up feeling like a specific memorial to Diana, rather than allowing us to feel how this moment of tragedy played out within the context of what has come before and what will come after.
It also means the show lacks the scope this time that viewers have become accustomed to. The success of the series in the past has been most pronounced when it has been exploring historical stories that are lesser known.
This is one of the reasons why seasons 1 and 2 remain the most popular, but the series has still had favourable results in this area since, with episodes centred around Mohamed Al-Fayed and Michael Fagan.
There's little room for that here - these four episodes are hyper-focused on Diana, with the second and third barely cutting away from her storyline at all.
Some will applaud this lack of so-called 'filler', but for others, this will feel like a departure from what made the show special, and a shame not to utilise the impressive ensemble cast more readily.
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The way Diana's death itself is handled is effective, poignant and above all thoughtful - from an early flash-forward which successfully deflates the apprehension and means you don't leave the audience morbidly waiting for the moment they all know is coming, to the chilling immediate aftermath as the family is informed, it is the best, most tactful version of this sequence that we could have possibly hoped for.
However, because of the way this 'part' has been framed, it means the show ends up trying to give substantial weight to a period in time which was not realistically felt as such. No one knew the crash was coming or that Diana was going to die – yet the audience know, and to acknowledge this the show has given an almost prophetic level of understanding to its characters.
There is a feeling that the writers are constantly trying to give Diana moments of closure – an on-the-nose conversation with Charles here, an existential analysis with Dodi there. Dodi himself is also given one of these moments, as he finally grapples with his troubled relationship with his father mere moments before his death.
The tragedy of Diana and Dodi's deaths was that there was no closure, as is the case for so many whose lives are cut short. By trying to neatly tie a bow around everything they were or would have been, there is a sense that some of the impact is lost in their sudden and devastating demise.
Perhaps the most dramatically successful out of these four episodes is the final one, as Charles and the wider Royal Family grapple with their loss and how best to honour Diana publicly and respond to the public's need for a show of personal mourning.
It is within this instalment that Dominic West gets a chance to truly excel as Charles, giving a tender, complex and deeply moving performance. The young actors playing William and Harry also hold their own, particularly given their youth and the emotional depths they are being asked to plumb.
In contrast, Imelda Staunton's Queen feels largely sidelined. She excellently performs the material she is given, but there is a sense that, having explored Elizabeth II's reaction, both publicly and privately, to Diana's death in 2006 film The Queen, Morgan is choosing to speed-run that storyline for fear of repeating himself.
It is also in this fourth episode that we get the much talked-about Diana's 'ghost' scenes, which, as expected, are actually imagined conversations rather than anything paranormal.
However, regardless of the intention here, these scenes still feel misjudged, largely because of their framing. The conversations she has with Charles and the Queen are entirely led by her, with this imagined Diana imparting knowledge and guidance upon these characters that they did not have before.
These scenes would surely have been more effective, and frankly more logically sound, were they the other way around - with the characters speaking to Diana, baring their souls in a way which would have more successfully illuminated their states of mind.
None of this is to say that the episodes aren't examples of deftly written drama, or that they aren't moving or powerful. When it matters most, Morgan and his team do, on the whole, get it right.
It will be revealing to see how these episodes play once factored into the season at large – the way they truly should have been released, as part of the overall ongoing story, rather than as a boxed-off adjunct.
But as we wait for the show's denouement next month, as a run of episodes on its own, this part feels uneven, with its narrative mechanics and behind-the-scenes intentions too brazenly on display.
It's not a misfire, it's just not an overwhelming success either. But what it has given us is an emotionally tender goodbye to Debicki's Diana – and her performance is for the ages.
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