Stephen Arnell

Queens on screen: a cinematic guide

Queens on screen: a cinematic guide
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth - The Golden Age (Shutterstock)
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When Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth I of Scotland) began her reign on 6 February 1952 (after the premature death of her father George VI) the British Empire was still very much in existence, with more than 70 overseas territories, despite the independence of India/Pakistan (‘The Jewel in The Crown’) in 1947.

But, in the words of Harold Macmillan, there was soon an inevitable ‘Wind of Change,’ as the UK relinquished its colonies and embraced the woolly concept of The Commonwealth of Nations (formerly The British Commonwealth).

Aside from the United Kingdom, the Queen is Head of State in 14 other nations – although, as recent Royal tours of the Caribbean have demonstrated, this may well decrease in the not-too-distant future.

There have been many depictions of female monarchs in the movies and television, with Victoria, Catherine the Great, Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I especially popular subjects.

Here’s my choice of the best motion pictures about queens as sole rulers, as opposed to queen-consorts.

The Queen (2006) Netflix, Amazon Prime

Very much the precursor to writer Peter Morgan’s Netflix series The Crown, The Queen examines the reaction of the senior Royals in the days following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

Helen Mirren plays the monarch, winning kudos for her depiction of a woman constrained by tradition, duty and a life being constantly deferred to.

Morgan manipulates the viewer throughout the picture, notably in a scene where the Queen admires the stag that her husband Philip (James Cromwell) had been obsessively pursuing over their stay in Balmoral, an obvious allusion to the relationship between Diana at the press.

A well-acted, but ultimately hollow picture, as the absence of Diana herself in the movie inevitably makes viewers speculate whether she was worth all the undignified keening evidenced at the time, which effectively forced the Windsors to play along with the popular mood of hysterical grief.

The film features the second (after 2003’s The Deal and before The Special Relationship in 2010) of Michael Sheen’s portrayals of Tony Blair for Morgan.

Alex Jennings plays a more sympathetic than may be expected Prince Charles, whilst Sylvia Syms is conversely a selfish, booze-tippling Queen Mother.

Mirren has also played Elizabeth’s ancestor Queen Charlotte (of Mecklenburg-Strelitz before her marriage into the British Royal Family) in The Madness of King George (1994), Elizabeth I (2005 Ch4 mini-series) and Catherine the Great (2019 Sky Atlantic mini-series).

Morgan is now taking on Russian oligarchs in his timely new play Patriots.

Farewell, My Queen (2012)

Benoît Jacquot’s (Diary of a Chambermaid) film adds a sapphic dimension to the life of Marie Antoinette, as we follow her life at Versailles when the Revolution erupts in 1789.

The queen (Diane Kruger) is pursuing a romantic relationship with Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

After the storming of the Bastille, Antoinette decides to spirit her lover away to safety, using her commoner reader Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) as a disposable lookalike to fool the revolutionaries.

Queen Victoria’s apparent refusal to believe that lesbianism existed (she was wrongly attributed as saying 'women do not do such things') is a myth, born from a misreading of the passing of Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885.

Victoria & Abdul (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

Speaking of Queen Victoria, I tend to feel that Edward, Prince of Wales gets the short end of the stick in depictions of his mother’s reign, especially in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul.

The fun-loving heir to the throne had a lot to put up with, his mother often evidencing a very Hanoverian streak of manic behaviour, blaming Edward (Eddie Izzard) for the premature death of his father/her husband, pious killjoy Prince Albert.

After her dalliance with a Scots gillie (Billy Connolly) in Mrs Brown (1997, where the Prince of Wales is similarly blackguarded) a much older monarch becomes maternally enchanted by her Indian ‘Munshi’ (attendant/teacher/clerk) Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal – Death on the Nile).

Her courtiers and heir become jealous of the new favourite, but Victoria stands by him even when it is revealed that he is suffering from the clap and had allegedly sold some of the jewellery she gifted him.

Judi Dench played the monarch in both Mrs Brown and V&A, also Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and a critically acclaimed Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra at the National in 1986, with Tony Hopkins as the tarnished Triumvir.

Cleopatra (1963) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s (Sleuth) epic is best known for what happened offscreen rather than the movie itself, as Richard Burton (Mark Antony) and Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) began their scandalous affair when shooting the picture.

Cleopatra is epic in its length, as well the subject-matter, with the restored cut running over four hours.

It’s an enjoyable watch for a wet Sunday afternoon, with unintended hilarity: Taylor occasionally resembles a Beverly Hills hostess rather than the descendant of Alexander’s chief lieutenant Ptolemy.

Rex Harrison (Caesar) looks sceptically on, grateful that he doesn’t have to wear the dinky mini skirt that Burton sports.

Although after donning similar garb in The Robe (1953) and Alexander the Great (1956), the actor should have been used to it.

In one memorable scene, Cleopatra enters Rome in no little state – Marcus Antonius comments to Caesar on the spectacle (somewhat nonsensically):

'Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus!'

Not quite the Mark Antony of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ fame then.

The film features three cast members later to find fame in long-running TV comedies: George Cole (Minder), Richard O’Sullivan (Man about the House/Robin’s Nest) and Carroll O'Connor (All in the Family/Archie Bunkers’ Place)

La Reine Margot (1994)

Patrice Chéreau’s (Intimacy) blood-soaked recounting of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) and its consequences is not a film for the faint-hearted.

The picture uses Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel as source material, but anyone expecting a Three Musketeers-style romp will be sorely disappointed.

For a more mature audience, it’s a great film, with wonderful performances and a real evocation of the tumultuous years of the French Wars of Religion.

Particular praise should go to Isabelle Adjani as the apparently incestuous but essentially kind-hearted Margot of Valois, Daniel Auteuil as the future Bourbon King Henry IV, Virna Lisi as the scheming Catherine de' Medici and Jean-Hugues Anglade as her unhinged son Charles IX.

Vincent Perez stars as Margot’s true love, the Huguenot chevalier La Môle.

Elizabeth (1998) Amazon Rent/Buy

Michael Hirst (Vikings/The Tudors) wrote the screenplay for Shekhar Kapur’s biopic of The Virgin Queen and his 2007 sequel (STARZPLAY).

The film plays extremely fast and loose with the facts, with parts that may appear jarring to viewers in 2022.

Most notably Vincent Cassell’s mincing, cross-dressing would-be suitor Francis, Duke of Anjou. There is no evidence to suggest that he was, so the assumption must be that Hirst wrote the character as comedy relief.

Elizabeth featured the final film appearance of John Gielgud, who played Pope Pius V.

Kapur cast including a mixture of film veterans (Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardent etc) and new faces/quirky choices including Eric Cantona, Kathy Burke, Daniel Craig, hoofer Wayne Sleep, Emily Mortimer, and the Allen (Lily/Alfie) siblings.

Upcoming STARZPLAY series Becoming Elizabeth follows the early years of the future monarch; German actress Alicia Gräfin (Countess) von Rittberg (Fury) stars; no problem assuming the hauteur of royalty, one would imagine.

The Favourite (2018) Amazon Rent/Buy

Olivia Colman plays the last Stuart monarch, whose largesse is fought over by established favourite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her impoverished newcomer cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone).

Yorgos Lanthimos’ (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) film holds the viewers’ attention, but since all the characters exhibit varying degrees of unpleasantness, there is no-one to really root for. A likely reflection of the Stuart court at the time.

Queen Anne’s ill-health, frequent painful pregnancies, and inability to provide an heir no doubt accounted for her behavioural problems; in Michael Caton-Jones’ underrated Rob Roy (1995), the cynical Earl of Montrose (John Hurt) comments:

'Our poor queen cannot find the time to die in peace. I fear she may pass over and leave the matter unresolved. Would that she had seen a child of hers live to comfort the kingdom.'

Lady Jane (1986) Amazon Rent/Buy

Theatre director Trevor Nunn brought the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey ‘The Nine Days' Queen’ to the screen in 1986.

To avoid his Catholic half-sister (Mary Jane Lapotaire) becoming Queen, the dying teenage King Edward VI nominates his staunchly Protestant cousin sixteen-year-old Jane (Helena Bonham-Carter) to take on the throne on his death.

This was at the urging of chief minister John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (John Wood) who had earlier engineered the marriage of Jane to his eighteen-year-old son Lord Guildford Dudley (Cary Elwes).

Although proclaimed Queen by the Privy Council, Jane’s support soon ebbs away, and after just nine days as monarch she is deposed and imprisoned in The Tower of London when Mary takes power.

Initially inclined to spare the lives of the couple, Mary has them both executed when Jane’s father Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk (Patrick Stewart) raises an unsuccessful rebellion to save her.

A sad story and one that is well-acted, but Nunn’s obvious lack of facility with the craft of movie-making undermines the material.

Boudica (2003) full movie available to watch on YouTube

ITV haven’t had much luck with period dramas set in pre-Victorian times.

In the same year as Ray Winstone’s Gorblimey Henry VIII, the broadcaster transmitted Boudica, a bargain-basement attempt to cash in on the success of Gladiator (2000).

Alex Kingston (Moll Flanders/Dr Who) plays the titular queen, who after being flogged by the occupying Romans is forced to watch the rape of her daughters before being turfed out of her Norfolk-based kingdom. Understandably Boudica prefers not to forgive and forget, launching a savage campaign against the decadent invaders.

Watch out for early screen appearances from Emily Blunt and Dominic Cooper.

Contrary to urban legend, the monarch is not buried beneath Platform 10 at London’s King’s Cross station.

Or is she? As a wag once said: 'did she die waiting for the train to Royston?'

Season 5 of The Crown debuts this November (TBC).