Netflix has really pushed the boat out with this one. Everyone buzzed about that massive budget, and I will say: it was well spent. This is beautiful to look at, and it boasts a really top-notch cast. Even the one-liners are people you recognise. And that top-notch cast gives some wonderful performances. I’m going to particularly call out Jared Harris as George VI. He may not have George’s handsomeness, but he does convey his quick temper, brought on by endless frustration and stress, his tender side, and the naked fear of a suffering man who clearly wants his misery to end, but knows that having it over with also means saddling his fairly young daughter with serious responsibilities she may not be ready for. And he’s trying to hide all that because he’s a king, and a father, and he doesn’t want to alarm anyone. Can’t alarm anyone. This is a country and a family still trying to dig its way out of a devastating war, after all.
This is pedigreed, to be sure–right down to Hans Zimmer doing the opening credits music. But it’s not without its faults. Amongst them: some very sloppy exposition-dump-by-way-of gossip during the wedding, which just feels like lazy writing. And this is absolutely, unabashedly in LOVE with the royal family. All we see of non-royals are adoring crowds of flag-waving commoners going nuts and screaming that they want to see the king. Now, don’t get me wrong, the royal family was super popular at this time, and people treated them with a sort of reverence that’s unheard of today, but still–there’s no indication that Britain, at this time, was undergoing serious upheaval in every way imaginable. Like I said above, the country was just emerging from World War II. Rationing was still in place. Huge parts of the cities were still piles of rubble. People were suffering and struggling. But there’s no sense of that, in these gilded rooms. But, it’s early days yet. Maybe we’ll get around to that.
We start off the day before the big royal wedding. Philip is renouncing his Greek citizenship and any claims to foreign thrones. In return, he gets to be Duke of Edinburgh and can marry the future Queen of England. He’s a little bit of a dick, but manages to be charming enough that Elizabeth’s going to see this thing through. And although there’s some hesitation on her part during the vows at the ceremony, they get married and all is well.
But not really. There’s tension in the government: Winston Churchill is still incredibly popular–moreso than the current prime minister. And Churchill’s also sulky about the fact that this match was championed by Lord Mountbatten, whom he’s no great fan of. There’s also the fact that Philip’s sisters married prominent Nazis (and were, therefore, not on the guest list for the wedding) and his mother only just emerged from a sanatorium and is now, apparently, a rather sour-faced nun. It all makes for some very interesting wedding photos.
And then there’s the king, who’s coughing up blood and yelling at his valets for no reason at all. He’s soothed, though, by his equerry, Peter Townsend, who uses the power of proper tie-tying techniques and his knowledge of dirty limericks to bring a smile back to his majesty’s face. Peter also brings quite a smile to the face of Princess Margaret, who can’t seem to stop eye-screwing him. It’s so obvious that even Elizabeth finally notices, and tells her sister that she totally gets it, he’s hot, but he’s also married, so maybe chill?
A few years pass. Elizabeth and Philip have a pair of tots and take up residence on Malta while Philip continues his naval career. I’ve heard it said that this was one of the happiest periods of Elizabeth’s life, because she just got to be an ordinary naval wife. Well, you know, ‘ordinary.’ They were still living in a mansion and it’s not like she was doing her own washing up or anything. But their Maltese idyll is interrupted by a summons from London.
The king is having emergency surgery–right there in the palace!–which results in the removal of a lung. The doctors reassure the family that he’s totally fine, but Philip has a look on his face that says, ‘really? I don’t think so.’ He wanders into the operating theatre and sees a diseased lung being wrapped up and disposed of.
Winston, too, is not fooled. He’s back in power, and he hands the king’s medical report to his own doctor for interpretation (without revealing who the patient is). The doctor takes one look and essentially says, ‘this poor bastard’s a goner.’ Winston confides only in his wife, Clementine, who’s both sad and alarmed at the prospect of the king dying and young Elizabeth coming to the throne so quickly.
Despite George’s attempts to appear hale and hearty, he finally learns that he’s terminal, and he has to admit he’s just not up for a planned tour of the Commonwealth nations. So now it falls to Elizabeth and Philip to go instead. Elizabeth breaks the news to her husband while the family’s gathered at Sandringham for Christmas. Philip’s not keen on just following his wife around for months and months, and leaving their children behind. Elizabeth, a little heartlessly, says the kids are too young to even notice the difference. Elizabeth, Charles is, what, four? He’s going to notice that his parents have disappeared for months, even if his day-to-day needs are mostly taken care of by a nanny. Philip knows his protestations aren’t going to get him anywhere, and he reluctantly agrees to fall in line.
At Elizabeth’s urging, George takes his son-in-law duck shooting. Just before they shove off, he gently tells Philip that his job, going forward, is to be there for Elizabeth–to love her and support there and just be there. It’s vital. Philip gets it. They start to shoot, and George begins coughing, getting this weary look on his face that speaks volumes to how tired and ready to give it all up he really is. But also, how scared he is. That, along with an earlier moment where he joins some local carollers in singing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and nearly breaks down totally won this episode for Jared Harris. And Claire Foy’s face in that same scene–the alarm and confusion and, to a tiny extent, perhaps dawning realisation that this was really happening, was also amazing. So bravo, guys, you really are pulling this off.
While the men are out, Elizabeth steals into her father’s study and sits in papa’s chair, staring at the Red Box with ‘The King’ stamped on it in gold letters. She looks small, there. And scared.