Over the course of its fairly lengthy run on Netflix, The Crown has proven to be one of the streamer’s best series. Telling the story of Queen Elizabeth II starting with the earliest days of her reign and continuing as she ages through history, the series has been remarkably successful at melding real-world events with an ample dose of fiction.
Along the way, The Crown has also featured a remarkable cadre of performers who have each more than proven their skill at inhabiting these people who have shaped recent history. Choosing a list of the best Crown performances is like picking a favorite child, and yet, we’ve managed to narrow it down to our 10 favorites.
Casting American John Lithgow as the most famous prime minister in British history seems like a recipe for disaster, but it turned out to be a major success. Lithgow’s version of the character is older, less sturdy, and exists primarily as a guide to young Queen Elizabeth as she learns what it means to fulfill her duties.
The queen’s sessions with prime ministers have been a constant in every season of The Crown, but the fact that the show starts with such a vivid Churchill makes it all feel even more cinematically fulfilling.
Erin Doherty may get more value from her minutes on screen than any other actor in the history of The Crown. She’s not a major part of the story, and yet, every time we see Anne, it’s easy to feel the urge to follow her out of the scene and into whatever else she may be up to.
Anne has her own issues, but those are largely kept off-screen, and Doherty is tasked with bringing that context into her onscreen portrayal. Anne is the only one of Elizabeth’s children who seems to really understand the world, and Doherty’s performance brings her to brilliant life.
Matt Smith gets more to do as Prince Philip than Tobias Menzies, and he’s genuinely great, but Menzies brings a kind of aged brilliance to the role. We understand this version of Prince Philip to be settled in his marriage, but feeling unfulfilled by his life more generally.
It’s a fascinating, morose performance, and one that Menzies pulls off brilliantly. He remains Elizabeth’s steadfast partner, but also seems to be searching for a purpose of his own inside a world determined to remove any chance of agency from him.
Margaret Thatcher is another British historical figure that doesn’t necessarily scream sympathetic. After all, she’s remembered today for her brutality toward the Irish and her harsh views on public welfare. Gillian Anderson manages to bring a spark of humanity to the character, helping us understand the way her posture was born and how she came to view the world the way she did.
Is that portrayal of Thatcher entirely responsible? Maybe not, but it certainly proved that Anderson was doing far more than just imitating the famous prime minister.
Jared Harris is only in the first two episodes of The Crown, but it’s hard to overstate how crucial his performance is to everything that comes after. Playing King George in his last days, we immediately come to understand how fond he is of his two daughters, and how burdened he has been by the duties of the monarchy.
King George’s legacy weighs heavily on Elizabeth, and it’s his death that forces her to become Queen long before her time. What we’ll most remember, though, is how much he seemed to genuinely love his children, even as he forced them to take on a role he never wanted himself.
Having to inherit the show from a strong cast was no easy task, but Olivia Colman took over as Queen Elizabeth at the perfect time in her own career. Coming off an Oscar win, everyone knew that Colman would be able to take on the role, and she did so with aplomb.
Colman’s Elizabeth was a natural evolution of Claire Foy’s, a character who is older and wiser, but also more stubborn and less open to input. Much of the drama moves away from Elizabeth and toward her children during Colman’s run, but that only made Colman’s ability to hold the screen all the more impressive.
Every era of the royal family has had a wild child and Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret set the template for what those archetypes would look like. Kirby’s Margaret is a perfect opposite for Foy’s Elizabeth; she’s all sharp edges and big feelings, while Foy’s Elizabeth keeps everything as close to the vest as possible.
Kirby exploded out of The Crown to become a major star, and with good reason. She made Margaret feel real and alive, even when she and Elizabeth were at complete cross purposes.
One of the more dazzling performances The Crown ever gave us came from Emma Corrin, who was such a natural match for Princess Diana that it was easy to forget that you weren’t watching a documentary.
Corrin plays Diana in her younger years, as she transitions from an overwhelmed teenager to a mother who will eventually become this family’s great undoing. Diana was the character many Crown fans had long been waiting for, and thanks to Corrin, she did not disappoint.
The Crown feels like an institution now, but when it first started, it sat squarely Foy’s shoulders. Foy, an almost total unknown when the show debuted, was tasked with playing Elizabeth during her youngest years, and it’s her performance that has been the basis for the rest of the show’s success.
Foy was compelling from the second she showed up on screen, showcasing the way this burden fell on Elizabeth by chance when she was still quite young, and how the queen ultimately rose to that challenge.
You aren’t supposed to like Prince Charles. Of all the members of the royal family, he’s the easiest to hate, and for what should be fairly obvious reasons. And yet, thanks to Josh O’Connor, it’s easy enough to understand him, even if you don’t get all the way to liking him.
O’Connor has all of Charles’s mannerisms down, but what he really nails is the way that Charles feels totally boxed in by a mother who has become an icon by the time he has come of age, and who will continue to loom over him throughout most of his adult life.
You can stream all 5 seasons of The Crown on Netflix.