It seems far longer than a year since The Crown’s third season had its debut, for obvious reasons, but the wait for its fourth instalment is more than worth it.
The Netflix drama returns at the top of its game as it heads into the second half its proposed six seasons, notably through the introduction of two defining figures of the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin).
While new additions Anderson and Corrin give excellent characterisations of the oft-imitated former Prime Minister and Princess of Wales, credit must also go to the established cast who embody their characters with more authority and expertise second time around, and through the interactions they are afforded through their introduction.
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The transition from Claire Foy's monarch to Colman's, particularly considering the latter's huge successes and profile in recent years, felt more abrupt than a natural flow from one to the other.
While Colman can surely command a room, it felt as though she didn't have complete authority in the role of Queen Elizabeth II. But by her second round in the fourth season she comes out swinging showing us why she is one of the most celebrated actors of her generation.
She's at the top of her game as she trades muted barbs with Anderson's Thatcher, someone the Queen can't quite seem to get her head round as while she's lived a life guided through consultation and advisement, the politician makes her own decisions regardless of backing.
This comes to a head in the episode ‘48:1’ when Thatcher is stubbornly against imposing sanctions on South Africa despite the views of the Commonwealth. Anderson, putting on an almost-perfect Thatcher voice, acts a worthy opponent to Colman as they are compared and contrasted as mothers as well as leaders.
Elsewhere, Josh O'Connor once again expertly portrays Prince Charles as a man who simultaneously appears old beyond his years yet consistently puerile as he reluctantly enters a marriage while carrying on with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles.
He isn’t the only one plagued by marriage troubles though as Princess Anne – revived by the magnificent Erin Doherty – is also unhappy with Mark Phillips.
As new parents, Diana and Charles set off for their tour of Australia and New Zealand in ‘Terra Nullius’ where we see the prince's jealousy over his wife's popularity rear its head before it plays out over the rest of the season. He’s a man dissatisfied with so much in his life, with O’Connor artfully building much of the tension in his scenes alongside Corrin through the Prince’s irritability and cold detachment.
And with such a brilliant imitation of the heir to the throne's mannerisms and expressions, O'Connor somehow seems to look more and more like the real Prince Charles as the series progresses.
Of course, all eyes are naturally on Diana this series as Corrin takes on the enormous task of portraying the beloved late Princess. Through her we see the naive Lady Diana Spencer having to quickly adjust to navigate the difficult world of royal life and its absurd protocols along with intense press attention.
Aside from an excellent physical performance, the newcomer does a sterling job of communicating the isolation Diana feels as she walks – and roller-skates – through the cavernous chambers of Buckingham Palace yearning for company, seeking crumbs of affection.
Corrin exhibits the childish attributes of Diana while endearing us to the troubled young bride and mother. We may question if she is motivated purely by heart or consciously with her own image in mind, as Charles suggests, but our sympathy more often than not ends up with her.
The drama sensitively depicts Diana's bulimia too and takes care not to make the eating disorder a one-episode issue as it recurs several times throughout the series, emphasising the scope of the problem.
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Although he takes on more of subtle role in the fourth series, Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip establishes a connection with Diana in the standout second episode 'The Balmoral Test'. The pair are bonded through their similar positions of being bound by duty to their spouses, with some of Diana’s struggles mirroring those Philip faced earlier in his life. Where they differ, however, is in the undeniable charisma Diana – and Corrin as Diana – possesses.
One of the only real shames of the series is that Corrin excels so much in her role, it’s hard to accept she won’t be appearing beyond the fourth season with Tenet star Elizabeth Debicki set to play Princess Diana for seasons five and six.
The fourth outing also sees the introduction of young adults Prince Edward and Prince Andrew, while Fergie, the Duchess of York, is briefly glimpsed in a few scenes, seemingly setting the characters up for a more prominent role in season five.
Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret is also back in all her clipped-tone glory, although in a more muted role compared with her Mustique antics in the past series, and through her we visit of the most interesting aspects of the Queen’s family history, the hidden Bowes-Lyon cousins.
The fourth season cements itself as the best yet as it looks at the series’ central theme of duty through a more complex lens as the emotionally-driven Princess Diana is thrown into The Firm, while Thatcher puts the cats among the pigeons in her own way.
Corrin’s sympathetic and fully-embodied portrayal draws us deeper into the drama while Colman, O’Connor, Menzies, and the like return for a triumphant swan song before the third horde of actors take us into the 1990s and beyond.
The difficult marriages of the monarch’s children seen in the fourth season preface her impending 1993 ‘annus horribilius’ and with it we feel, and know, throughout this series we are heading toward disaster and tragedy for the family later on with Diana’s 1997 death.
With such a superbly acted series it could be a difficult act to follow for the next cohort, but after season four it feels as if the The Crown is only going from strength to strength.
The Crown season 4 launches on Netflix on Sunday 15 November.
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