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As a dyed-in-the-wool, completely annoying Anglophile and with The King’s Speech out on home video (available on DVD and Blu-ray from redbox) and that big, silly whositwhatsithulabaloo going down across the pond tomorrow, I thought I’d chime in with a list of great British monarchy movies.
We’ll start with the current monarch and work our way back to my all-time favorite film.
I’m not out to rain on anyone’s little early-morning parade, but I remember watching live 30 years ago–the last time we got all giddy over a “fairytale” British royal wedding. That one didn’t end so well down the road, and the tragic demise of Princess Diana provides the dramatic crux for this 2006 drama from director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan. Of course it’s not really about The People’s Princess, but rather an excuse to peek inside the daily life of Queen Elizabeth (the brilliant, Oscar-winning Helen Mirren), complete with all the etiquette and rules of proper behavior that keep royal emotions so carefully under wraps.
I’ve written plenty this year about the 2010 Best Picture, but it’s worth noting that like The Queen (about George’s daughter), this is a study of the monarchy in transition, struggling to adapt to a 20th century where technology, image, and changing social attitudes threatened to overturn all that tradition and render the Crown a useless tourist attraction.
Arguably the last great, true monarch of England, George’s great grandmother shows up as a historical side character in many films, but surprisingly few have focused on her in particular. Two of my favorites set out to capture the queen at opposite ends of her 64-year reign in the 1800s.
2009’s The Young Victoria stars the terrific Emily Blunt as a headstrong woman in her 20s fighting hard to hold on to the throne’s power in a male-dominated political system while also falling for her beloved Albert (Rupert Friend).
In 1997’s Mrs. Brown we catch up with Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) 20 years later, in her 40s, forever mourning Albert but finding her imperious stoicism threatened by Billy Connelly’s John Brown, a rough-hewn Scottish servant.
Some folks make the compelling argument that Americans should be shunning all the pomp and pageantry of another modern-day royal wedding because, after all, our nation was founded on a rebellion against such institutions. Of course George III (Victoria’s grandfather) was the villain in our national Revolutionary story.
Patriotic bias against George aside, this is a tremendous film. A look at power, royalty, mind, body, and human frailty set in the late 1780s, it stars Nigel Hawthorne as the mentally debilitated monarch, Mirren as his wife, and Ian Holm as the doctor who, much like Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech, must deal with both a king’s ailment as well as protocol and class separation.
Of course England tried going without a monarchy for a few years in the 17th century and things got, well, bloody. When the Cromwellian smoke and Commonwealth cleared in 1660, Charles II wound up on the throne his father Charles I lost his head over. Sam Neill is the Cavalier Charles here, with Robert Downey Jr as yet another commoner doctor dealing with a difficult royal patron. (You can also see John Malkovich’s dry, wry Charles in the wicked 2004 Johnny Depp film The Libertine.)
No British monarch has ignited our cinematic imaginations as much as Henry VIII’s redheaded daughter, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603. She’s been played by Bette Davis in 1939′s Essex and Elizabeth and 1955′s The Virgin Queen and by Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. But two of the best on-screen portrayals of Queen Bess have been Cate Blanchett in 1998′s Elizabeth and its 2007 sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age and once again Helen Mirren in the 2005 TV movie Elizabeth I.
The Blanchett films from Shekhar Kapur are certainly sexier–full of dark, rich art direction, cinematography, and beautiful costumes. But good as Blanchett is, Mirren’s version wins out on acting and its less-florid, more historically accurate tone. (And since I’m cheating a bit here by including a TV film, let me also toss into the mix Miranda Richardson’s 1986 batty, bratty portrayal of the Virgin Queen in the always riotious Blackadder.)
I come up short on Henry, Elizabeth’s father and perhaps one of the most important monarchs in English history—for example, I haven’t seen Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ version in Showtime’s The Tudors. Instead my favorite film Henry VIII is Robert Shaw’s supporting role in 1966’s A Man for All Seasons. The film is of course Thomas More’s story (played by the tremendous Paul Scofield), but Shaw’s charming, bellowing, larger-than-life Henry and his marrying ways give the story its narrative and dramatic spine.
I wasn’t going to include film versions of Shakespeare’s king plays in this list because while they make for great art, they’re usually pretty lousy history. But none of the films on this list are perfectly accurate, and it’d be a shame to leave off Kenneth Branagh’s early triumph as both a director and an actor. So what if the real Henry has little to do with Shakespeare and Branagh’s character, or that the Bard’s version of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt is pure pro-monarchy English propaganda? It’s still gripping, rousing band-of-brothers drama.
Finally we come to two of my favorite films on this list—one of which is my favorite film of all time. Both feature Peter O’Toole as Henry Plantagenet, who ruled England in its early Norman days, from 1154 to 1189. Henry had two great companions in his life—his best friend and advisor Thomas Becket and his formidable wife and powerful equal Eleanor of Aquitaine. 1964′s Becket follows Henry and Becket (Richard Burton) in their early carousing years, up through the religious awakening that eventually set Thomas against Henry politically.
1968′s The Lion in Winter finds Henry 13 years later (though O’Toole was only four years older), nearing the end of his life, bedeviled by the constant schemes and mechanisms of Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) and trying to determine which of his sons should rule the kingdom he’s worked so hard to build: the young and weak-willed John (Nigel Terry) or his older warrior-poet brother Richard the Lionhearted (Anthony Hopkins).
The brilliant Lion in Winter is my favorite film of all time for good reason: perfectly written and acted and full of a mixture of royal grandeur, personal failings, and powerful human spirit, it’s the perfect example of what a great monarch movie can be–and the primary reason I love this genre so.