As the author of a new book about the abdication crisis, appropriately enough entitled The Crown in Crisis, I know that there is something uniquely dramatic about any saga that involves the British royal family. There will always be an appetite for films and television series about them, as there has been since the invention of cinema. No other institution has ever had the same glamour and pageantry attached to it, even as the stories that revolve around the monarchy range from the inspiring to the shocking.
Such is our collective fascination with royalty that starring in a film about the British monarchy is a surefire way of securing an Oscar or BAFTA nomination. Of course, there have been some dreadful performance and films, too, which are best forgotten. But with the recent announcement that Kristen Stewart is to play Princess Diana, in a new film, Spencer, from the director of Jackie, there seems no end to the dramatic possibilities of the royal family on screen. Here are some of our favourites.
It would be impossible to do this list and not include Peter Morgan’s Netflix show about Elizabeth II, which will be returning for its fourth series later this year. Its greatest strength is its close focus on the shifting relationship between the monarchy and politics, allowing a succession of great actors (John Lithgow, Jeremy Northam, Jason Watkins) to give fantastic performances as various prime ministers, often to surprising and very moving effect. And Claire Foy was perfect as the Queen in the first two seasons, moving from wide-eyed ingenue to steel-hearted competence.
The third series went off the boil somewhat, thanks to a miscast Olivia Colman as HRH, but we eagerly await the fourth series, with Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher and the introduction of Princess Diana, played by the hitherto unknown actress Emma Corrin.
The King’s Speech
‘I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!’ Before Tom Hooper became the subject of a million mocking memes for Cats, he won an Oscar for his direction of the story of George VI’s stammer and the unorthodox methods that he took to cure it. The King’s Speech also won Oscars for Best Film – over The Social Network, which should have won – and for Colin Firth as King George. Although he is very good, stammering away for England, he was even better the previous year in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, and one wonders how far the award was an apology for not honouring him then.
The best performance instead is given by Geoffrey Rush as the unconventional speech therapist and failed actor Lionel Logue. He deserved to win an award himself, as did Helena Bonham Carter in a wonderfully warm and witty performance as the Queen Mother.
The Young Victoria
Emily Blunt established herself as a leading actress with this old-fashioned but enjoyable biopic about the romance between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which, for our money, is better than ITV’s Victoria. Produced, incongruously, by Martin Scorsese, directed by Big Little Lies’ Jean-Marc Vallée, and with a quip-laden script by Julian Fellowes, it does a decent job of telling the story of Victoria’s early years on the throne, surrounded by Machiavellian advisers (led by baddie du jour Mark Strong as Sir John Conroy) and her growing love for Albert. Blunt is excellent, but the best performance is given by Paul Bettany as her private secretary (and Prime Minister) Lord Melbourne.
Although Bettany is far too young to play the role, necessitating some old-age make-up, he is fascinating to watch, and one half-wishes that he could return, now that he is a more appropriate age, and that an entire film could be made about Melbourne. Incidentally, he was first choice for the role of George VI in The King’s Speech, and one wonders what he would have done with the part.
Helen Mirren has always been the most regal of English actresses, and it was no surprise that she finally won an Oscar for her iconic performance as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’s film about the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, written with wit and assurance by Peter Morgan. The film mainly revolves around the relationship between the Queen, calmly aloof and attempting to remain above political or media concerns, and the new Prime Minister Tony Blair, played with great charm and assurance by Morgan regular Michael Sheen. To anyone over the age of 35, this may seem as much current affairs as drama, but Mirren is so excellent that one can entirely believe that this is the most accurate fictional presentation of the Queen ever put on screen.
Elizabeth/ Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Cate Blanchett was at her most majestic in the two Shekhar Kapur films about Elizabeth I, the first revolving around her attempts to remain on the throne after the death of her sister Mary, and the second dealing with the Spanish Armada and her relationship with Sir Francis Drake. The first is by far the best, despite or because of a bizarrely eclectic cast that finds room for the likes of Eric Cantona, Angus Deayton, John Gielgud and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, and the second feels rushed and surprisingly low-budget, despite all of the pageantry and fine costumes. Yet Blanchett is excellent in both, and was Oscar-nominated for her performances, which combine hauteur and arrogance with all-too-human eruptions of lust and anger.
The Madness of King George
The recent death of Sir Ian Holm led to deserved appreciation of his great career in the obituaries, and his performance as George III’s implacable doctor Frances Willis, who believed that the king’s insanity could only be dealt with by a fierce regime of close-quarters restraint, was one of the most saluted.
Yet, as usual, it is the actor who plays the king who steals the film. Nigel Hawthorne’s extraordinary performance, reprising his stage role from Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III, hits heights of raw emotion that those who remembered him as the suave mandarin Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister might never have believed that he could reach. Nicholas Hytner’s self-effacing direction allows Bennett’s script to shine, with wit and pathos jostling for effect, and Hawthorne, more than ably supported by Helen Mirren as his Queen and Rupert Everett as the scheming Prince of Wales, is quite wonderful.
Alexander Larman’s new book, The Crown in Crisis, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP £20