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"The Crown" sounds almost like a fairy tale come to life. A young princess marries the man of her dreams, becomes a mother and at age 25 ascends to the throne.
But this 10-part Netflix series out Friday is not fiction, it's based on real life. And there has been no happily-ever-after for Queen Elizabeth II.
"We all imagine it's a fairy tale," said scriptwriter Peter Morgan. "It's anything but."
His narrative for this telebiography of Her Majesty begins shortly before Elizabeth's (Clair Foy, "Wolf Hall") 1947 marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith, "Doctor Who"), then jumps ahead to 1952 shortly before the untimely death of King George VI (Jared Jarris, "Mad Men").
"That story of the crown landing on her head way sooner than she ever imagined is the essential narrative of the first season," said Morgan, whose 1996 screenplay for another Elizabeth II project, "The Queen," was nominated for an Oscar.
Elizabeth was young, rather sheltered and still mourning the death of her father, who died at 56, when her reign began. In "The Crown," she's a woman who would have preferred to focus on her husband and children.
But "that's not necessarily what her job is," Foy said. "And the acceptance of that job [is] a very difficult thing to have to deal with while also grieving for the loss of your father.
"I think people forget when someone comes to the throne, it's because a family member has died."
"The Crown" is the story of "the terrible impact becoming queen at such a young age had on her and on all her relationships," Morgan said. "With her husband. With her sister. With her mother. Just what a devastating impact it has."
It's also the story of a couple who will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary on Nov. 20. Morgan said he considered starting the series with Elizabeth becoming queen, but decided he "wanted storyline A, as it were, to be their marriage."
This is a story that, if it weren't true, would bend credulity beyond the breaking point. As talented a writer as Morgan is, even he couldn't invent a cast of characters that includes Prince Philip, a man's man chafing at being subservient to his wife; the aging, infirm prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow); and the queen's younger, flamboyant, unlucky-in-love sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) who wants to marry a divorced man, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles).
It's an echo of the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII for the twice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson and a foreshadowing of the coming marital crises of Elizabeth's children Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew.
The new queen had to deal with the advice and egos of two other queens her grandmother, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins); and her mother, Queen Elizabeth (Victoria Hamilton).
And hovering in the background sometimes in the foreground was the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the former King Edward VIII who remained deeply estranged from his family years after he abdicated to marry an American divorcee.
"The Crown" plays out almost like a real-life "Downton Abbey," only on a much bigger stage. There are conflicts within the family. Conflicts within the household staff. Conflicts involving the government. There's an incredible wealth of material and Season 1 ends in 1955, so there's another six decades of Elizabeth's reign to mine for future seasons. Only two of Elizabeth's four children were even born by 1955, and they're barely seen in Season 1.
(The plan is to produce 60 episodes over six seasons, with the major roles being recast for Seasons 3 and 4, and then again for Seasons 5 and 6.)
The series is produced on a lavish scale equal to the story. Each of the 10 episodes feels like a movie, and it's not hard to believe reports that Netflix spent $100 million on Season 1.
"The Crown" is not a documentary, however. Morgan dramatizes Elizabeth's life he builds the narrative on a framework of public events but includes private exchanges and personal motives in a way that's entirely believable and doesn't feel in the least bit exploitative.
It's the story of a woman who has managed to remain an enigma despite being one of the most famous people on the planet for longer than most the planet's population has been alive.
"Peter Morgan's queen and the real queen are two separate things, I think," Foy said. Of necessity because for a woman who has been front and center on the world stage for 90 years, there isn't a great deal of first-person information about her. …
"She doesn't express herself. That's sort of part of the job."
And "The Crown" introduces us to a woman who molded herself to the job of being the best possible monarch she can be.
"It's a terrible pressure to be, on the one hand, Elizabeth Windsor a woman. And on the other hand, to be the queen," Morgan said. "And how many times you have to suppress your own opinions in order to have the opinions demanded of the crown, and you lose some sense of yourself.
"I think it must be an extraordinarily difficult thing to live with."
Elizabeth is not a saint. She's sometimes jealous and defensive about her position as the head of the royal family. She fights with her husband, her mother, her sister.
In other words, she's human.
"We're not doing caricatures," Smith said. "And I think what, hopefully, we've done is capture the energy and the essence of these people on some front."
"The Crown" doesn't lionize Elizabeth II. It doesn't villainize her. It humanizes her.
"I just think she's a very, very, very good, good, good person who has given her life for her country … and has done the most incredible job," Foy said.
And the actors admit to the added pressure of not just playing real people, but playing real people who are still alive and icons of a monarchy.
"We just tried our best, essentially," Foy said.
"Yeah," Smith agreed. "History will judge us."
Streaming on Netflix
All 10 hourlong episodes of "The Crown" begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 4.