“The Crown” has always been a murderer’s row of acting talent; over its first three seasons, the Netflix show earned 39 Emmy nominations, including acting wins for Claire Foy and John Lithgow for their work as Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill.
The performances in Season 4, however, are on another level. Olivia Colman undoubtedly will get nominated again for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work as Queen Elizabeth, and will probably face off against the tremendous debut of Emma Corrin as Diana. But it is in the Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category where the groundwork for a battle is set: previous nominee Helen Bonham Carter, playing Princess Margaret, stands to go up against Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher.
There is another name that should be added to that list: Emerald Fennell, for her work as Camilla Parker-Bowles. Fennell doesn’t have as much screentime as Anderson or Carter, but her moments are incisive and critical to progressing the storylines of the drama. One, in particular, stands out: the scene in Episode 3, “Fairytale,” when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), on one of his perpetual trips to anywhere Diana isn’t, suggests that she spends time with his ex, Camilla.
“She’s great fun,” he tells her on the tarmac as he prepares to leave for six weeks right before their wedding. “If you ever wanted company, she’s the best company.” Indeed.
The resulting five-minute lunch scene is a masterclass in devastating subtlety, as Fennell’s Camilla slowly, sentence by sentence, picks away at whatever romantic misconceptions Corrin’s Diana had about her relationship with Charles. Fennell’s smile and posh blustery charm as Camilla never cracks as she circles like a vulture over the whole doomed relationship between the prince and, frankly, a woman who is truly little more than a child. Camilla, with her cigarette and Royal-appropriate pearls, is a confident, experienced adult woman — and sweet, virginal Diana, who has never even lived in an apartment by herself has the worldly knowledge of a middle schooler.
“During the rehearsal, Ben [Caron], the brilliant director, had Josh sit between us silently and he said, ‘Whoever feels like they have the upper hand in this moment, whenever you feel like you have the upper hand, hold his hand,’” Fennell told IndieWire. “Of course, I just clung onto his hand, my nails in his palm the whole scene. Not on purpose — it’s just what it felt like. And Emma was tentatively trying to touch it, which was impossible … That’s the sort of stuff I fucking love about ‘The Crown’ because that’s the thing about a Netflix budget, you get to do proper rehearsals and you can play around.”
The scene marks two turning points: First, Camilla’s brazen confidence makes it clear that she’s going to be a spectre over the relationship even after the marriage, one that would inspire the real-world Princess Diana to famously complain to journalist Martin Bashir that “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” (And, frankly, was she wrong? We all can see how Charles and Camilla wound up.)
“There’s no other circumstance like the thing that these people went through, it’s completely off the wall,” Fennell said, “and I genuinely do believe, certainly in this version, that Camilla is wanting to help. But she hasn’t realized really until the moment of the lunch how jealous she is, how upsetting this is, and also how unready Diana is for both the marriage — how little she knows Charles, but also how little she’s aware of what this family is and how it works.”
The other sea change that happens in the series as a result of the lunch scene is Diana’s downward spiral into bulimia. As the catastrophic lunch comes to a close, Corrin, furious and emotionally scalded, pointedly digs into her dessert, a harbinger of Diana’s years of struggling with disordered eating.
“According to the researchers, Charles and Camilla were just best friends really, at that stage,” Fennell said. “We are technically not doing anything wrong, even if this is just an emotional affair. So it’s a really complicated thing, but using food as — not as a weapon, but this idea that Camilla is just eating unthinkingly, she’s just not self-conscious at all. She’s not self-conscious about anything, and how triggering that is for Diana.”
It’s been a hell of a year for Fennell; besides the role of Camilla, her directorial debut “Promising Young Woman” received stellar reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival. In 2019, the Television Academy already gave Fennell two Emmy nominations for her work as showrunner on the second season of “Killing Eve” — and now it’s time to complete her career best 2020 by recognizing her acting talent, as well.
Reporting by Kate Erbland.
All four seasons of “The Crown” are available for streaming on Netflix.