The Cruelty of Age in “The Crown”

Carrie Willard’s recent assessment is dead-on — “The Crown” deserves to be savored instead of […]

Larry Parsley / 12.15.16

Carrie Willard’s recent assessment is dead-on — “The Crown” deserves to be savored instead of binged. In the ninth episode, one of the more interesting subplots had the artist Graham Sutherland being commissioned to paint Winston Churchill’s portrait for his 80th birthday [spoilers follow]. Churchill (John Lithgow) is anything but a willing subject, nor is he excited about the unveiling of the finished product before an audience at Westminster Abbey. And while the audience applauds politely at the unveiling, Churchill’s initial disgust is barely masked by a forced smile. “A fine patriotic piece of modern art,” he manages.

After hearing that Churchill has rejected the painting, Sutherland drives to his home and tries to talk him out of his decision. Churchill is adamant, claiming, “That is not a painting; it’s a humiliation.” He believes he was mercilessly portrayed as a “broken, sagging, pitiful creature” (and throws in a scatological reference for good measure). He calls Sutherland a “Judas, wielding his murderous brush.” The whole affair, according to Churchill, is nothing less than an unpatriotic betrayal. Sutherland responds initially in measured yet forceful tones. “It’s not vindictive. It’s art. It’s not personal.” He believes the painting is accurate, but Winston claims the image is not truthful but rather cruel. At this point, Sutherland loses the calm demeanor and shouts:

“Age is cruel! If you see decay, it’s because there’s decay. If you see frailty, it’s because there’s frailty. I can’t be blamed for what is, and I refuse to hide and disguise what I see. If you are engaged in a fight with something, then it’s not with me. It’s with your own blindness.”

“The Crown,” acclaimed for its cinematography, closes out the scene with a marvelous shot of the old and wounded Churchill on the sofa, and just over his shoulder, his brutally-accurate portrait. In the show’s version of events, the affair with the painting ultimately triggers his decision to resign the office of prime minister. The episode concludes with a gardener dumping the painting in a pile of brush and setting it afire, as Mrs. Churchill looks on approvingly (although history suggests she asked her secretary to dispose of the painting several miles away). Such scenes are just a few of the many reasons “The Crown” rewards watching and rewatching.

I couldn’t help but feel that the dialogue underscored a part of the Biblical message, but not the whole. The “decay” that Sutherland saw and all too accurately rendered has been in play since Genesis 3. Accordingly, the Psalmist (90) teaches us to “number our days”; if we do not, a mirror or portrait may just have to help us keep track. But there is in Scripture a gracious promise I cling to as well. While our bodies grow frail and “waste away,” our souls actually hold the potential of growing younger and “renewed” (2 Cor. 4:16). This is not a “second childhood” of intellectual and emotional immaturity, but a kind of joy and playfulness which many of us remember from a favorite aunt or grandparent. Yes, age can be cruel, and any denial of the aging process betrays our blindness. Still, grace is ageless, and somehow manages to fashion those sparse gray hairs into a “crown of splendor” (Proverbs 16:31).