We have a love/hate relationship with monarchy. In practice, sure, autocratic rule is generally a bad thing (not that democracy is inherently a cakewalk, but at least it leaves us with no one else to blame), while modern, watered-down versions of royalty can feel a bit pointless — like it’s all just for show. But that’s the part we love: the show.
Monarchy is where the personal and the political meet, where family drama can have global consequences played out against a lavish backdrop of fancy clothes and lush accommodations. A divorce can be juicy — but a divorce with ramifications destined to echo across five centuries? That’s one helluva tale. The fascination with those stories is the fuel, really that’s kept the monarchy going in Great Britain — it’s said royal tourism revenues more than pay the costs associated with keeping the queen on the throne, and provide seemingly endless fodder for storytellers.
Here, and covering nearly a millennium of English and British monarchy, are 22 of the best and most interesting films focused on particular kings and queens regnant. Some are scandalous, some action-packed, many are lavish, and a few even approximate
(Small terminology note for fellow pedants: before 1707 — about midway through Queen Anne’s reign — we talk about English kings and queens; once England and Scotland united, they’re British.)
Elizabeth II — The Queen (2006)
Reign: 1952 – Present
There are queens, and then there’s Dame Helen Mirren, who portrays Queen Elizabeth II onscreen here for the first and only time, though she’s played this particular British monarch on stage as well. The movie is set during a critical period of Elizabeth’s longest-in-history reign: well past her days as the face of a plucky post-war Great Britain, the middle-aged Queen had become mired in family scandals and a looming sense of irrelevance. The 1997 death of Princess Diana represented a personal and political crisis for the queen who, while navigating her grandchildren through the death of their mother, had to come to terms with the public’s need for a more open-hearted monarchy. The resulting reinvention, though subtle, might well have saved the British monarchy (for a while, at least).
Queen Elizabeth II (Bonus) — A Royal Night Out (2015)
So long has lasted Elizabeth’s reign that few residents of the Commonwealth (or the rest of us, for that matter) can remember a time when she wasn’t the grey-haired and grandmotherly ruler figure she’s come to represent. Though slight, this film tells the (fictionalised, naturally) true story of the night that the then-heir apparent (and Army auto mechanic) snuck out of the palace incognito with her sister Margaret in order to celebrate with the rest of the VE-Day revellers. It speaks to a very different time in the life of the queen, and the world at large. Alongside The Queen, it would make for a solid Elizabeth-themed double-feature.
George VI — The King’s Speech (2010)
Reign: 1936 – 1952
The charming Best Picture Oscar winner gets fairly close to the true events in the story of Lionel Logue, speech therapist to “Bertie,” second son of George V, who was never destined to become king, and never had much interest. When his older brother Edward abdicated the throne to dabble in Nazism with American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Bertie was forced to wear the crown just in time for the outbreak of World War II, and its particular threat to British shores. With the help of Logue and that of his wife (the future queen mother, who lived to a ripe old 101), the new king was able to moderate his stammer and develop the confidence necessary to boost the country’s spirits during an especially dark time.
Edward VIII — W.E. (2011)
Madonna’s directorial debut wasn’t exactly a critical triumph, but there are a couple of things it gets very right. The film introduces a fictional modern character named Wally Winthrop with a fondness for the story of Edward VII and Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom he gave up the throne. In exploring the romance further, Wally comes to understand that their lives together were far less rosy than the superficial details might suggest. In focusing on Wallis and by refusing to overly romanticise two very complicated lives, Madonna actually manages to cut through some of the mythology. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the costumes look great, and earned the movie one of its two Academy Award nominations.
George V — Downton Abbey (2019)
Reign: 1910 – 1936
The event that justifies Downton Abbey’s move from the small screen to large is a visit to the Crawley estate by then King George V, Queen Mary of Teck, and their daughter, also named Mary; and introducing a would-be assassin into the mix. The king and queen don’t take up a huge amount of screen-time here, but writer/creator Julian Fellowes and company seem to have a solid handle on their real-life personalities, and blend in some well-formed speculation about the slightly precarious state of the Princess’s marriage.
In reality, the most significant violence of the era involving Irish nationalists happened at the beginning of the 20s, and King George wasn’t particularly tied up in any of it, but nonetheless, the question of northern Irish sovereignty was very much in the wind. There’s also plenty of real-life precedent for the type of budget-busting royal visit depicted here — a tradition that goes back at least to Elizabeth I, who would tour the country on what was referred to as a “royal progress.” The fictionalised details of the visit in the film are based on a few of different specific royal visits, including a 1917 stopover by George and Mary at Highclere Castle, the real-life stand-in for Downton Abbey.
Rumour has it that the current queen is a fan of the show, and so one of the perks of royalty is, it seems, getting to see your grandparents represented on your favourite program.
Victoria — Victoria & Abdul (2017)
Reign: 1837 – 1901
There are plenty of options if you’re looking for a Victoria-related movie, but one of the most recent might also be one of the most worthwhile. The most interesting and admirable moments in the career of Queen Victoria tend to arrange themselves at the beginning of her reign, when she was determined to secure her own power and authority without deferring to the men who tried to manipulate her; and the end, when she came out of a decades-long funk following the death of her husband.
This movie is a standalone, but also works as a sequel of sorts to Dame Judi Dench’s earlier performance as Victoria, 1997’s Mrs. Brown. That film dealt with her very close relationship with coarse Scottish attendant, John Brown (it’s not at all impossible that the two were secretly married). Here, she develops a similarly close friendship with Indian Muslim attendant Abdul Karim. They’re both great movies, though this one has a lighter touch and might go down a bit more easily. In each case, as in real life, there’s plenty of dramatic fodder in the real-life stories of Victoria, a global symbol of propriety and sobriety to this day, engaging openly and wilfully in relationships that utterly scandalised her contemporaries.
Victoria (Bonus) — The Young Victoria (2009)
Though slightly stodgy, as is always a danger in costume films, The Young Victoria otherwise effectively dramatises the early life of the queen — it’s easy to forget that the imposing figure we’re familiar with was, not unlike the current monarch, once the fresh face of a new era, coming into the title when not yet 20. It’s suitably lush, and has a great cast, led by Emily Blunt.
George IV — Peterloo (2018)
Reign: 1820 – 1830
Films about kings and queens often get so caught up in the lavish lifestyles and high drama of royal life that they forget about life outside the palace walls. Mike Leigh’s genuinely great Peterloo doesn’t spend a lot of time with the future George IV (here serving as prince regent in the wake of his father’s deteriorating mental health), but nevertheless he has a critical role in the development of circumstances leading to the Peterloo massacre, when a massive voting rights protest ended in a slaughter. If you’re looking for a biography of George IV, this isn’t it, but it is a striking portrait of his times, and of the limits of royal power.
George III — The Madness of King George (1994)
Reign: 1760 – 1820
Royal history thrives where the personal and political collide, as well reflected in this popular comedy-drama. The king’s increasingly erratic behaviour, just a decade after the loss of the American colonies, set off a crisis in 1788. Competing Parliamentary factions were eager to either minimise the potential damage or to take advantage of the situation, while the Prince of Wales, chafing for years under his father’s restrictions, saw an opportunity. Exploring the crisis with heart and a lot of humour, the film has one of those great period-drama casts lead by Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren.
Anne — The Favourite (2018)
Reign: 1702 – 1714
A pitch-black comedy that plays fast-and-loose with historical details, The Favourite nevertheless captures a moment in British history when women were well and truly running the show. Gossip and backstabbing rule the day as two women, in particular, strive to climb to the top of the heap in the court of Queen Anne near the end of her reign. Aside from being genuinely funny, and eschewing the conventions of period drama in favour of much more stylish camerawork, the film isn’t afraid to demonstrate a nuanced, warts-and-all brand of female power at a time when ambitious men might’ve been bold, but ambitious women were required to be clever.
Charles II — Restoration (1995)
Reign: 1660 – 1685
This was a wildly colourful era in English history, and this sightly quirky film captures quite a bit of that flavour. Follow the execution of the first King Charles, England had spent a decade of cancelled Christmases and general austerity under a Puritan protectorate…but, by 1660, there was once again a king on the throne, and he wasn’t one for chastity, nor temperance. Restoration is a sweeping film with a large cast of characters that’s nevertheless anchored by Robert Downey Jr.’s Robert Merivel, a doctor married off to one of the king’s mistresses on the promise that the two won’t have sex under any circumstances. Naturally, love gets in the way.
Elizabeth I — Elizabeth (1998)
Reign: 1558 – 1603
It can almost feel like there’s a house style where English period dramas are concerned, and there are plenty of lavish and very enjoyable movies that never really display anything like their own unique style. That’s the reason that Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth made such a splash — that, and a legitimately great performance from Cate Blanchett (like The Favourite, it’s another movie that avoids the conventions of the genre). It takes a fair number of liberties with the history of Bess’s early reign, but is no less impressive a film for it.
Elizabeth I (Bonus) — Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Was 1998 the biggest year for Elizabeth I since the Spanish Armada? Perhaps, with two Queen Bess-themed movies in contention for Best Picture Oscars (Shakespeare in Love and the aforementioned Elizabeth — this one taking home the prize), and Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett nominated for their portrayals of the queen, albeit in separate categories. Dench won her prize for only a few minutes of screen-time, and so gets a nod here. Though the film is, obviously, more about a highly fictionalised Shakespeare, it creates a joyous and compelling portrait of Elizabethan London in the time of the theatre-loving queen.
Henry VIII — Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
Reign: 1509 – 1547
Though he’d hate it, Henry is far better known by his six wives than for anything he accomplished during his reign (even his earth-shattering religious reformation was largely instigated in order to secure a divorce). This film, focusing on Anne Boleyn, isn’t entirely successful, falling into some of the period drama traps with dull stretches. What it does have, however, are incredible performances, including what is probably the best Anne Boleyn portrayal to date in Geneviève Bujold’s justifiably lauded take.
Henry VIII (Bonus) — Wolf Hall (2009)
Though history as often seen him as a villain, and as the mastermind behind some of Henry’s most questionable actions, modern scholarship (and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books) has come to look at him as a clever survivor, a butcher’s son navigating a turbulent time and rising from nothing to the highest levels of the Tudor court. The miniseries based on those books is deliberately paced, and so isn’t for all tastes, but it’s an intelligent and generally gripping take on the life of the man who kept things running on Henry’s behalf.
Richard III — Richard III (1995)
Reign: 1483 – 1485
Scholars and history buffs are still having (figuratively) knock-down, drag-out fights about the character and kingship of Richard III, discussions given new life by the unexpected discovery of his remains under a Leicester car park. Was he really, for example, responsible for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower? (Of course he was.)
But! Regardless of historical fact, his popular reputation (as with many other late-medieval English kings), is largely formed by the work of Shakespeare, and good luck to anyone willing to battle the Bard over matters of history. This particular version of that play that shares Richard III’s name is one of the truly great Shakespeare films, based on a Royal National Theatre production that also starred Ian McKellen. Moving the action to an alternate 1930s, the movie draws explicit lines between the 15th century rise of Richard, to the growth of fascism in the pre-WWII-era, to the near-present day, exploring our fascination with autocratic leaders. It’s a film well worth revisiting.
Henry V — Henry V (1989)
Reign: 1413 – 1422
Once again, we’re solidly in Shakespeare country with this era of English kingship, and that’s probably fine, though it means we’re unlikely to see many films about the English kings of the late medieval era that aren’t explicit Shakespeare adaptations. There are worse fates, I suppose, than having the Bard as your life’s near-exclusive chronicler. This one’s a fairly straight take on the Henry V play, but it’s also a sumptuous and brilliantly acted one, just about topping Laurence Olivier’s slightly meta 1944 version.
Richard II — The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)
Reign: 1377 – 1399
Kicking off a series of incredibly well-produced Shakespeare adaptations under the Hollow Crown banner, the most obviously impressive novelty here is that it’s filmed on location, in many cases at the sites of the actual events depicted, throwing off any sense of staginess entirely in favour of an unexpected verisimilitude. Naturally, Shakespeare draws great actors, but this cast is first-rate, as well: Ben Whislaw, Patrick Stewart, and Rory Kinnear, et al.
Edward II — Edward II (1991)
Reign: 1307 – 1327
Queer film pioneer Derek Jarman takes on England’s most notoriously queer (at least by reputation) king, with a postmodern staging based on a Christopher Marlowe play. The gay subtext becomes glorious text in the story of Edward and his lover, Piers Gaveston, and, in place of a chorus, we get Annie Lennox serenading the royals.
John — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Reign: 1199 – 1216
John wasn’t a particularly good king (that’s why there’s never been a John II), and this movie isn’t particularly useful as a history lesson. It is, however, utterly delightful, and reflects John’s less-than-salubrious reputation.
Henry II — The Lion in Winter (1969)
Reign: 1154 – 1189
Once again, the personal and political play together in ways that have shaped history. The early part of Henry’s reign is defined by his tempestuous relationship with the Catholic church, as dramatised in the 1964 movie Becket. Kings fighting with Rome over power is a near-constant theme in these royal histories — but rarely more than with Henry, who created a troublesome martyr when he allowed his friend and an archbishop to be hacked to death at Canterbury. The end of his reign, likewise, saw him in conflict with those closest to him — in particular, his estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, played flawlessly by Katherine Hepburn, and his rebellious son (a young-ish Anthony Hopkins).
Matilda — Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Reign: 1141 – 1148 (disputed)
When Henry I’s sole legitimate son died unexpectedly, he promoted Matilda to the succession and secured the necessary oaths to make it happen. At a young age, Matilda was already the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, herself an anointed Empress in her own right, and had served as regent over vast areas of land in France and Italy. There’s probably never been a more qualified claimant to the English throne, but it didn’t matter: women can’t be King, and so she was forced to gather an army and invade.
The following decade is known as “The Anarchy” for the breakdown in order that resulted from the conflict, the back-and-forth between Matilda and her cousin Stephen causing widespread disruption. Finally, realising that there was no end to the stalemate, Matilda agreed to back down, but only if her child, not Stephen’s, would be the next ruler. It was, and every monarch since has been a descendent of hers. So, even though her place on the royal rolls is debated…she gets her own slide.
Pillars of the Earth isn’t exclusively the story of Matilda and Stephen (though they are important players), but it takes place entirely against the backdrop of that societal breakdown.
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