‘The Crown’: Marriages fall and scandals build in Season 5, but the show remains a royal treat

Shrewdly cast new duo playing Charles and Diana leads the great ensemble on Netflix’s soapy treatment of the House of Windsor.

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“The Crown” does its usual recasting for Season 5, bringing in Dominic West to play Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, just as the famous couple’s marriage is collapsing.

Netflix

Prince Charles rarely comes off as a sympathetic figure in television and film adaptations about the royal family, but you do feel a certain measure of sympathy for him on a few occasions in Season 5 of Netflix’s “The Crown,” as he asks anyone who will listen, including the Queen Mother: When is it going to be MY time????

Charles. Chuck. HRH The Prince of Wales. Given the timeline covered here is the early and mid-1990s, you’re going to have to sit tight for another three decades, give or take. Sorry about that old chum.

We love bingeing Peter Morgan’s brilliantly soapy fictionalization about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II for a myriad of reasons, from the gorgeously staged production design to the robust performances delivered by a revolving cast of great actors to the inherently rich real-life dramatic material. Let’s be honest, we also love it because we have the superior viewpoint of 20/20 hindsight — the advantage of knowing exactly how everything is going to turn out. Plus, we get to hang around in castles and yachts.

‘The Crown’ Season 5

Untitled

A 10-episode season available Wednesday on Netflix.

Premiering just two months after Queen Elizabeth’s death at the age of 96, the penultimate season of “The Crown” begins with a newsreel-style sequence set in Scotland in 1953, as the young queen (Claire Foy) launches the new royal yacht Britannia and says, “I hope that this brand-new vessel, like your brand-new queen, will prove to be dependable and constant, capable of weathering any storm.”

Flash forward to 1991, with Elizabeth (now played by Imelda Staunton) undergoing her annual physical, looking weary, learning she’s gained a little weight and being told she’s on her feet too much. Shortly thereafter, we learn the queen’s favorite home away from home in all the world, the Britannia, is gradually falling apart and requires a massive overhaul lest it fall into permanent disrepair. Let the metaphors begin!

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Queen Elizabeth II is now played by Imelda Staunton.

Netflix

Season 5 covers a half-dozen years in the 1990s — a relatively short period of time that was nonetheless jam-packed with dramatic developments for the royals, most notably in the year 1992 (which the queen famously labeled the “Annus Horribilis”), during which the marriages of three of the queen’s four children came to an end; a devastating fire swept through Windsor Castle, and the royals were humiliated by the publication of Andrew Morton’s sensational biography of Diana and the release of an intimate and embarrassing private phone call between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.

As you’d expect, the disintegration of the marriage between Charles and Diana is the centerpiece of this season, with Elizabeth Debicki doing an uncanny, almost unnervingly spot-on interpretation of Diana, complete with the tilted head and the slightly mannered speech pattern, while Dominic West, who has a rakish, leading-man persona that initially makes it seem he’s miscast as Charles, grows into the role and expertly captures Charles’ overt machinations to get his mother to abdicate, claiming she’s utterly out of touch with the modern world. Charles is petty and narcissistic, but he’s not entirely wrong.

Other new cast members: Jonathan Pryce takes over the role of Prince Philip and infuses him with a kind of old-school dignity but a bit more humanity than we often see in portrayals of the Duke of Edinburgh; Lesley Manville inherits the somewhat thankless role of Princess Margaret, who as always is fiercely loyal to her sister but deeply resentful of the queen’s control over her life; Jonny Lee Miller is terrific as Prime Minister John Major, who often finds himself acting as mediator between the squabbling royals, and Olivia Williams disappears into the role of Camilla Parker Bowles, who endures constant ridicule because she genuinely and truly loves Charles. Fine work all around.

We get a number of deep dives into subplots combining historical fact with imagined conversations and scenarios. One episode focuses on a visit from a drunken, boorish Boris Yeltsin (Anatoly Kotenev); another tells us the back story of the Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed (played as an adult by Salim Daw) and his campaign to ingratiate himself with European society and in particular the royals. In one of the most effective and moving stories, Connie M’Gadzah delivers quietly powerful work as Sydney Johnson, who was the valet to Edward VIII for decades and was subsequently hired by Al-Fayed.

Then there are the ludicrous yet often compelling flights of fancy. After Diana’s split from Charles, she is drawn to Dr. Hasnat Khan (Humayun Seed). For their first real date, Diana dons a disguise, and they see “Apollo 13” together; later that night, in a scene straight out of “Notting Hill,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” plays in the background at Diana’s flat as Khan says, “I don’t understand what you see in me. I’m a totally average, socially inept, slightly overweight, workaholic doctor.”

Diana’s reply: “You forget I already had a prince. He broke my heart. I’m just looking for a frog to make me happy.”

She’s just a girl, standing in front of a boy!

Debicki and West have their “And the Nominees Are…” moment in a “Marriage Story”-type scene just after their divorce, when Charles stops by Diana’s Kensington Palace flat and they share some tender moments over plates of scrambled eggs before they fall into the same old arguments, the same old grievances and lash out furiously at one another. Like much of “The Crown,” it’s a fictionalized take that carries the essence of feeling true.

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