November 8, 2021
$45.99 DVD, $55.99 Blu-ray;
Stars Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson, Josh O’Connor, Emma Corrin, Marion Bailey, Erin Doherty, Stephen Boxer, Emerald Fennell.
The acclaimed series about the British monarchy takes a turn in its fourth season to focus on the women who defined the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
With Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) having served as Queen for several decades, the series shifts further away from dealing with her adjusting to the position, and puts more emphasis on examining the appropriateness of a monarchy in modern society, and the impact that open question has on Elizabeth, her husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), and their growing family.
In particular, the season introduces Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and takes a hard look behind the scenes of her marriage to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), which famously ended in divorce before her tragic death in a car accident in 1997.
Diana is depicted as a bright-eyed teenager looking for a fairy tale life and getting a lot more than she expected, with Charles marrying her only out of convenience to satisfy the pressures of his hereditary duties. Much to the chagrin of his family, he remains in a discreet relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, who the previous season had been deemed unsuitable as a match for the future king. Bowles is played by Emerald Fennell, who would go on to win a writing Oscar for Promising Young Woman.
Meanwhile, the other major thread of the season concerns the rise of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) as prime minister, who vows to reshape the country from the bottom up. This leads to a bit of a clash of personalities with the Queen, who doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her policies — a disagreement that eventually spills out into the press in a breach of protocol that proves scandalous. Thatcher, in turn, finds the royal family to be a bit boorish and out of touch with her perception of the common British citizen. As they are roughly the same age, the season takes the obvious, but effective, move of exploring their parallel tracks toward leadership — working class republicanism versus aristocratic duty.
The season also hits upon some of the other historical milestones of the 1980s, such as the Falklands War, and even finds time for a welcome cameo from some familiar faces from earlier seasons. One fascinating detour involves focusing an episode on the story of Michael Fagan, an unemployed commoner who managed to break into Buckingham Palace in 1982 and managed to have a conversation with the Queen in her private bedroom.
With this latest batch of 10 episodes, the series maintains its usually high marks for writing and acting, and while the veracity of certain off-the-record events might be open to scrutiny, its not hard to see why the season dominated at the Emmy Awards, sweeping the top seven categories for Drama Series, taking trophies for writing, directing, Best Supporting Actress for Anderson, Best Supporting Actor for Menzies, Best Actor for O’Connor, Best Actress for Colman, and Outstanding Drama Series. Academy voters were so eager to fête the series they even gave a Guest Star Emmy to Claire Foy, who already won an Emmy for playing the queen in the first two seasons, for a brief appearance as the younger queen in a flashback.
The Blu-ray includes three behind-the-scenes featurettes and a photo gallery.
The six-minute “Triumph & Tragedy: Diana & Charles” offers a brief look at the depiction of the season’s central relationship; the six-and-a-half-minute “Three Groundbreaking Women” focuses on the complicated relationships between Elizabeth and Thatcher, and Elizabeth and Diana. The general making of the series is covered in the eight-and-a-half-minute “Research, Costumes & More: The Making of Season 4,” an informative look at the process of researching the historic events that inspired the series.
The photo gallery is interesting as it presents stills of scenes from the series next to photos of the actual royals in the real-life situation upon which the scene was based.
While the season premiered on Netflix a year ago, the Blu-ray release is well timed, as the biopic Spencer with Kristen Stewart as Diana has just hit theaters.
Originally published as a streaming review Nov. 16, 2020.