Now for some good news: After “The Night Manager” and “Tenet,” this is the third, and hopefully last, time Elizabeth Debicki plays a fragile, glamorous woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Not because she can’t do the job. On the contrary, Debicki’s Diana picks up exactly where Emma Corrin left off. The latter has perfected that shy, doe-eyed upward gaze known the world over, but Debicki wisely builds on that foundation. She packs over 15 years of agony and loneliness into the graceful, swan-like curvature of her neck and back; misery has hardened before her eyes like the kohl she uses on both lash lines. During season five, Diana is often home alone, dressing up to sneak into movies with a boyfriend, or going on clandestine dates with disreputable BBC reporters. Debicki really soars when she distinguishes Diana facing the public – posing in photo calls with her adulterous husband as his future queen, smiling, waving – from the one abandoned by everyone who knew her.
The emotional devastation that Debicki conveys intensifies when there is no dialogue or scene partner. Like Matt Smith (Prince Philip in seasons 1 and 2) and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret, seasons 1 and 2), Debicki knows she’s playing a mercurial figure with a lot of personality. All three use their characters’ individual experiences of physical and psychological torment to create a wall between their true selves and everyone else. But only Philip and Margaret are safe, having long since given up on fighting the system. Diana, as she says in an interview with Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah, walking a fine line between dishonest and sincere), fought until the end.
The gorgeous Lesley Manville is tragically underutilized. Very few actors enjoy their craft the way she does. Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Princess Margaret was terrific, but at times felt brittle and one-note. There is a deep and lasting rupture in Margaret de Manville – after divorcing the Earl Snowdon, the Princess never remarried and smoked herself into oblivion – but there is also a self-awareness and dignity ironic. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the princess reunites, at a party, with an elderly Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton, doing more acting here than in the rest of his career). That the episode revolves between the fleeting joy that Margaret feels, dancing in the arms of the man she had promised herself, drinking and laughing with him, and the 1992 fire that damaged Windsor Castle , could easily turn into lazy symbolism. Margaret, however, offers her sister a scathing monologue, sneaking a little drunk into a room, drinking firmly in hand, chiding Elizabeth’s self-pity and asking if she can even bring herself to admit that she destroyed her only sister’s dreams. Manville and Staunton are frequent collaborators with Mike Leigh, so I was hoping some of that intense chemistry would have a chance to take hold and blossom. Alas, as I’m sure Margaret herself would agree, there isn’t enough Margaret in ‘The Crown’.