Elections in the U.S. and Britain show a distinct distrust of the establishment. So what explains the popularity of British royalty-based shows like The Crown on Netflix and the ITV/PBS Masterpiece production Victoria? Past movies like The King’s Speech, Mrs. Brown, and The Queen have attracted similar followings. Even the Kennedy film Jackie and the soapy Downton Abbey offer an intimate view of a lofty lifestyle that is wholly at odds with the experience of everyday people, but viewers keep tuning in.
I’ll admit I’m one of them. And I can’t help but wonder, why do I care? I’m not terribly interested in the real-life details of Will and Kate or the more scandalous Prince Harry. But on screen, I do enjoy the majestic rooms and sumptuous costumes, and I like the opportunity to witness historic turning points from the perspective of world leaders or people of influence.
But mostly, it’s fun to see that they weren’t so different from me. The imposing Queen Victoria was once a love-smitten girl. Queen Elizabeth II had marital spats and sibling rivalries. King George VI had a fear of public speaking, and a good-for-nothing older brother to boot (I should say right here that my big brother is good for something, I’m sure of it).
Even queens suffered the frustrations of being torn between giving attention to their children or the work at hand; they knew the indignities of being held more accountable for how they looked than what they thought; and they endured the assumptions that their thoughts, words, and actions needed to be managed by the powerful men surrounding them.
And that is what The Crown, in particular, does so well. It gives viewers an idea of what it’s like to have to uphold an ancient tradition, sometimes at a cost to yourself or to the people you love. Claire Foy embodies Queen Elizabeth well, sometimes tentative, sometimes authoritative. She conveys the prim frumpiness attributed to the Queen without making a caricature of her.
The Crown gives a glimpse into the human side of the royals—how they suffer the awkwardness of having people following their every step, horrified at each misspoken word or each break with tradition. Servants listen while she and her husband argue; privacy is at a premium.
The more melodramatic Victoria doesn’t do that quite as well—it’s more interested in giving us an exquisite Victoria than a real Victoria— but it addresses many of these same issues.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not just looking for royalty, I’m looking for myself. High costume drama seems like a strange place to find a woman who spends most of her time wrapped in a blanket typing on a laptop, doesn’t it?
In her controversial speech at the Golden Globes in January, Meryl Streep said something that clicked with me: “An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.” That rings true. One of the highest goals a movie or TV production can meet is to reach into my heart and help me understand what it’s like to be someone else.
That’s actually one of my highest goals too. I want to enter the lives of people who are different from me, I want to know what it feels like. I want to understand what other people are going through, and I want to bear their burdens with them. That’s what my Savior did for me, and I want to follow in his footsteps.
The truth is, I have no desire to be a queen. I don’t spend much time on my wardrobe, I hate having my picture taken, and I rarely wait long enough for even my husband to open a door for me. I don’t know what a lady’s maid would ever do with me.
But that queen, that maid, and myself—we all struggle with the same things. We all hate our imperfections. We all ache for love. We all want to matter. Just like that quiet girl in my youth group. Just like that new neighbor down the street.
As I watch people onscreen pretend to be who they are not, I sometimes find what’s real.