Stephen Arnell

‘Perpetuating falsehoods’: films about royal fiascos

'Perpetuating falsehoods': films about royal fiascos
The Young Victoria (Shutterstock)
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As the nation waits with bated breath for Sunday's broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s already notorious interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, here's a smorgasbord of royalty in the movies, both real and fictional.

With the success of Netflix’s, The Crown at the Golden Globes (granted a semi-seal of approval from Prince Harry) and the threat of yet another biopic of his mother (this time starring Kristen Stewart), the appetite for on screen depiction of ‘The Firm’ shows no sign of lessening.

Recently there’s been a slew of saccharine TV movies from the likes of Hallmark and Netflix, all with the same basic plot, namely the travails of ‘inappropriate’ royal romances, which are of course pertinent to the current infighting in the House of Mountbatten-Windsor.

The Prince of Wales never really found himself depicted as the romantic lead in any movies, always rather the dissatisfied heir or miserable partner to his late ex-wife. Interestingly, it is the women who often take centre stage in royal dramas - from Princess Margaret and Wallace Simpson to Marie Antoinette.

The closest Prince Charles came to a more flattering portrayal was way back in 1976, when Michael York took the role of Prince George in Seven Nights in Japan a thinly veiled and idealised (not least in the looks department) version of Charles’ Royal Navy days.

So, without further ado, here's our roundup of royalty on screen.

Grace of Monaco (2014) – Amazon Rent/Buy

The last film to date of once promising director Oliver Dahan (La Vie en rose), Grace of Monaco is a stinker of such epic proportions that it is surely destined for some kind of cult status.

Nicole Kidman unwisely decided to burnish her acting credentials by taking on the role of Grace Kelly as Princess of Monaco during the early 1960s, where (according to the movie) she faced off President de Gaulle to protect the principality’s multi-millionaire tax evaders.

Apparently, the audience are supposed to be cheering Kelly on when she succeeds in letting the plutocrats off the hook. A talented cast were presumably lured by generous fees and a shooting schedule in the south of France.

Diana (2013) – full movie on YouTube

The year before Grace of Monaco, another Australian actress tried her hand at playing a royal, with equally awful results.

Kidman’s pal Naomi Watts probably knew that she was on a hiding to nothing playing the role, but went ahead with the project, which purported to reveal the events of the final two years of Princes Diana’s life, including her affair with heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews).

The movie was helmed by Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who must surely have regretted taking the gig.

As with Grace, reviews for the picture were lousy; given the circumstances of Diana’s death Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw perhaps should not have labelled it as 'car crash cinema'.

A Royal Affair (2012) – Amazon Rent/Buy

This sad, true story depicts the loveless marriage of Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain and the Danish King Christian VII of Denmark.

When the affair between Christian’s reforming advisor and personal physician, the German Johann Friedrich Struensee is revealed, the lovers' days are numbered.

Struensee pays the ultimate price, whilst Caroline is exiled for the rest of her short life until she succumbs to scarlet fever at the age of just twenty-three.

Great performances from Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda and a reminder of the strong strain of Danish blood in the British Royal Family.

The Duke of Edinburgh is, of course, a member of the House of Glücksburg, the ruling house of Denmark.

The Young Victoria (2009) – Amazon Prime

A satisfying biopic of the monarch’s early years as a ruler, when she successfully fought off attempted domination by pushy mother The Duchess of Kent and bullying boyfriend Sir John Conroy.

Emily Blunt does a fine job of portraying the young queen, but poor old Rupert Friend can’t do much with his role as Prince Albert.

My sympathies are with Paul Bettany as the roguish Lord Melbourne and Jim Broadbent as a dyspeptic King William IV, popularly known as ‘The Sailor King’.

The ubiquitous Mark Strong plays the villainous Conroy, who looks permanently on the verge of twirling an imaginary moustache – or on the hunt for the nearest innocent maiden to tie to a train track.

Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) directs from a script by Julian (Downton) Fellowes.

The Queen’s Sister (2005)

This Princess Margaret biopic is something of a hidden gem.

If you liked Vanessa Kirby’s take on the Queen’s naughty late sibling, you should enjoy Lucy Cohu’s performance, likewise Toby Stephens as Lord Snowdon (Matthew Goode in Netflix show, later Ben Daniels), who both certainly got around a bit.

For pop archivists, Edward Tudor-Pole (of Swords of a Thousand Men fame) turns up as society photographer Cecil Beaton.

For a more sanitised view of Princess Margaret when she was younger, take a peek at A Royal Night Out (2015) – although she does manage to slip the leash on VE night to head to the fleshpots of Soho.

Marie Antoinette

Sophia Copolla's take on the legendary French Queen won't serve you too well as a history lesson but it's visually playful with mountains of delectable cake and frilly costumes. It juxtaposes the passions of Antoinette's naive adolescence nicely with the grander machinations of the French Revolution. 

Kirsten Dunst stars alongside Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI and Asia Argento as Comptesse du Barry.

King Ralph (1991) – Amazon Rent/Buy

This tale of mistaken identity, plotting and inheriting grand titles boasts an infantile formula of prat falls, sight gags, innuendo, and the occasional actual bon mot. When the British royal family is accidentally killed, the heir to the throne is revealed to be a crass American called Ralph Jones. A civilising process must therefore begin. 

Although outlandish, it's fun to watch two distinguished thespians slumming it: Peter O’Toole and John Hurt.

Wallis & Edward (2005) Full Movie on YouTube

Following 2002’s Bertie & Elizabeth, ITV went back to the well with this largely by the numbers biopic of the so-called ‘Love Story of the Century’.

To its credit the TV movie does take a more sympathetic view of the oft demonised Wallis Simpson. Joely Richardson does well as Simpson, whilst Steven Campbell Moore essays the rather thankless role of needy clotheshorse Edward VIII.