Claire Foy Puts a Human Face Under ‘The Crown’ in Season 2

For all the pomp found in “The Crown, the most expensive original series Netflix has produced to date, it is the circumstance that brings the human face to Queen Elizabeth II. Claire Foy may wear a crown for the public as England’s reigning monarch, but it sits uncomfortably inside her. In the first season, we saw a young woman growing into the constraints of the traditions that exalted her. In “The Crown” season 2, she shakes off the shackles of rule to exalt herself as a leader. Steely as she may be, descended from royal blood that once considered itself godlike, Foy telegraphs the all-too-human frailty at the heart of the role.

A British queen must not appear petty, but Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II takes every whispered critique as an excuse to turn personal pain into national pride. The season opens in February, 1957, during the most intimate of tortures, Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip. Played by Matt Smith, the Duke of Edinburgh didn’t sign up for the role he was cast in and bristles at the exclusions and enforced divisions he must endure in a union that can never be broken. He can put dents in it with dalliances with renowned ballerinas, but the armor of royal tradition is made of hard, cold stuff.

From the time she allows Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to wage illegal battle in Egypt, through the Cold War and to the scandal-ridden plummet of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Queen Elizabeth II carves her own individual path. Whether she is doing the Fox Trot with an African ruler or tolling royal bells for fallen foreign leaders like the young President John F. Kennedy (Michael C. Hall), the Queen of England writes new rules, often as she goes.

Queen Elizabeth II does it all with class. Even as she is overshadowed by First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour), fresh off her enchanting tour de France, Elizabeth brings elegance to her vulnerability. The two icons of female political power meet in a solitary place reserved for the most reserved of the VIP crowd. The entire production is treated with the same kind of importance afforded classic costume pieces like the 1968 film adaptation of the play “The Lion in Winter,” which starred Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his imprisoned wife, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Queen Elizabeth rattles her chains as much as the Beatles’ John Lennon deadpanned that she rattled her jewelry, ringing in Great Britain’s part in the revolutionary 1960s.

While it may appear Elizabeth’s sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) may have been the more suitable choice for the changing times, the “Downton Abbey” restraint Elizabeth employs to steer the country keeps it on a steady, proper course. While some may miss John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill, England’s monarch still navigates stormy political tides with guidance from such historical figures as the Reverend Billy Graham (Paul Sparks), Bobby Kennedy (Julian Ovenden) and Lady Mountbatten (Lucy Russell).

“The Crown” is based on the play “The Audience.” It was created by Peter Morgan, who wrote “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.” Directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”), the series has some of the most revelatory acting this season, and the grandest of settings. But it is Foy who vanquishes all foes, god save her.

The Crown” season 2 premieres Dec. 8 on Netflix.