When The Crown Keeps a Stiff Upper Lip, the Slightest Movement Can Speak Volumes
Here, the stiff upper lip is more than a cliché—it’s a means to a terrific end.Photo Courtesy of Netflix TV Features The Crown
The Crown has a hell of a stiff upper lip. Peter Morgan’s sumptuous Netflix series has always been, at its heart, about the tension between the public face and the private wants and wounds of the Windsor family. Impassive faces and muted responses are a feature, not a bug, and over the course of the first two Claire Foy-anchored seasons, you can watch Elizabeth slowly build walls around herself and (more importantly) grow comfortable behind those walls. It’s only fitting then that in the show’s second age—Olivia Colman succeeding Foy, Tobias Menzies stepping into Matt Smith’s shoes—those walls are even more firmly in place, not just for Elizabeth, but for most of those in her orbit. (As played by Josh O’Connor, Charles is just beginning to build those walls. That slow progression is as subtly tragic as any story about fabulously wealthy and privileged people can be, as though we’re watching a human being become a face on a coin in real time—but that’s a story for another season.)
Already a series that contrasts the lavish world of the British royal family with the highly controlled, often repressed lives they lead, The Crown increased that tension in its third season. But more importantly, that restrained approach became central to two of the finest moments in its very strong third season, the first occurring at the end of “Aberfan,” the third episode, and the second near the end of “Bubbikins,” its fourth. These two moments encapsulate the great strength of The Crown in microcosm: When one keeps a stiff upper lip, the slightest movement can speak volumes. One is the slow birth of a tear. The other is a swallow.
At this point I should acknowledge that Menzies and Colman are always subtle actors; it’s not an exclusively Windsor thing for them. I should also note, in the interest of full disclosure, that on an Outlander podcast I co-host, a not-small percentage of our total time has been devoted to the miraculous face of Tobias Menzies, who can be absolutely terrifying or heartbreaking just by kind of clenching his jaw a little; we call it “jacting,” as in jaw-acting, but loosely apply the term to tiny things he does with his arms, his forehead, his breath pattern, two fingers, the list goes on. Hand to god, he has made some sort of deal with the devil that allows him to make his eyes move closer together at will; he is a magician. So I was prepared in advance for moments like the swallow at the end of “Bubbikins.” Matt Smith is a very fine performer, but he has not one single moment in either of his two seasons of The Adventures Of Philip, Royal Playboy that compares to that swallow. Nor is that moment the only one of the sort in this season; Menzies’ got at least six in “Moondust,” the Philip-yells-at-Anglican-priests-and-is-disappointed-by-astronauts episode, as well.
But that swallow is really, if you’ll pardon the expression, the tits. (The impulse to be kind of vulgar when writing about The Crown is nearly as strong as the urge to use “one” and the royal we.) “Bubbikins” sees Philip tilting at a public relations windmill, attempting to soften up the image of the family in an effort to both course-correct from a disastrously out-of-touch interview and to make an argument for an increase in pay for the Queen and her family, courtesy of the British people. That effort takes the form of a documentary, and his anxiety around the effort spikes when his mother, Princess Alice of Greece (Jane Lapotaire)—a nun forced to leave her convent after a political uprising—comes to live in Buckingham Palace. She keeps inquiring after “Bubbikins,” and Elizabeth and Anne (the terrific Erin Doherty) keep demurring. Philip sees her speaking to the documentary crew and is mortified, yet even then he doesn’t speak to her, and instead sends others to stop the interview and retrieve the footage; it’s only after Anne slyly directs an anti-monarchist reporter meant to profile her to Alice instead that Philip sees the woman she is, and not the troubled mother he believes abandoned him.
If you want to revisit this scene, it’s at about the 50-minute mark in “Bubbikins.” Philip goes to see her, reads the resulting profile aloud; it’s both upsetting and moving, a recitation of the wrongs done to this woman and her grace in the face of it all. He apologizes for his “faithlessness,” and she replies that it’s he who’s owed the apology. “At least your sisters had something of their mother,” she says, and he swallows. They discuss faith—the way he says his is “dormant” without really releasing his jaw is another damned symphony, someone give the man an Emmy or two—and then she proposes a walk. He swallows again.
In a landscape where everything is manicured, controlled, lit just so and timed just right, such a swallow speaks volumes. It’s equivalent to a person falling to their knees and weeping on another show. And because swallowing isn’t typically a performative action, something we do to indicate our emotions to others, it speaks even louder. We swallow to clear our throats. We swallow sobs the way we blink back tears, but Menzies doesn’t really blink. He just swallows, and it says a million things at once. Such a movement is a microexpression of sorts, an involuntary action designed to conceal, rather than reveal, emotion. I don’t know if Tobias Menzies let loose with those two swallows in each and every take. Perhaps they were planned, or perhaps they were the totally involuntary result of the emotion he summoned for himself in the scene. Whatever the case, they’re minuscule but staggering emotional moments, subtle but incredibly potent. Menzies doesn’t let Philip cry, he doesn’t even let him fight back tears. He just stands there, his face unchanged, and swallows.
That’s jacting, folks.
Olivia Colman’s moment comes from somewhere else entirely. “Aberfan,” arguably the strongest episode in the season, concerns a horrific national tragedy: The collapse of a coal deposit in the titular Welsh village, which then ran down the mountain as, essentially, a river of coal, burying a local school and killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Elizabeth is urged by Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) to visit the town in person and provide comfort; she replies that her appearance on the scene would bring rescue work to a halt. But her anxiety surrounding what’s being asked of her, something that would never have occurred before the rise of television, has a personal bent as well; as she watches all those around her react in horror (Philip included—Menzies does a ton of jacting in this episode), she wonders what exactly is missing inside her that prevents her from feeling things as strongly as the other people in her life. Safe inside those walls she built, she asks for a recording of the families singing at the funeral, something Philip describes as being “the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard.” “Did you weep?” she asks. “I might have wept, yes. Are you going to tell me it was inappropriate? The fact is anyone who heard that hymn today would not just have wept. They would have been broken into a thousand tiny pieces.” Then he opens an envelope and she just stands there. It’s a big moment.
Not as big as the last, however. She gets the recording of the hymn and sits alone in some magnificent room to listen to it. (The sound design here is masterful; the clicks of the record player gradually fade out and it’s as though it’s being sung right there in the room.) She sits, the camera focusing on the back of her head; then it switches to her expressionless face. She doesn’t move at all at first, but over the course of 30 uninterrupted seconds, a tear slowly grows in one eye. Then she moves her jaw a little—perhaps it, too, is a swallow—and the tear escapes.
That’s it. That’s all that happens. It’s magnificent.
What Colman and Menzies are doing in The Crown is a great example of actors marrying their approach to the characters they’re playing; the choice to refrain from great displays of emotion makes these little moments stand out all the more, like a small black dot on a vast white canvas. But it’s also a testament to acting in general. Our best actors don’t need to broadcast every single beat at top volume; those moments can work too (see Meryl Streep’s keening at the dinner table in Big Little Lies), but there’s something particularly affecting about the crack in the facade, rather than an outpouring of emotion. Don’t watch The Crown for the costumes or production design, excellent as they are, and don’t watch it for an accurate look at British history, as the story is decidedly fictionalized. (Did you know someone attempted to kidnap Princess Anne during this time period? Neither did Peter Morgan, apparently.) Watch it because its very nature demands it serve as a showcase of some of the world’s best actors at the peak of their powers, playing long games and making tiny moments hit as hard as soaring arias. The stiff upper lip is more than a cliché. In the case of this show, it’s a means to a terrific end.
The Crown is currently streaming on Netflix.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.
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