As the daughter of a British mother, costume dramas were always a thing in my movie watching repertoire and I’m more lenient on them than I should be (unlike resident critic Tim). But as the daughter of an American dad and living in America, the concept of a monarchy lived mostly in the idea of celebrities as royalty more than actual ruling monarchs. Nevertheless, I still indulge in whatever historical royal scandals happen in both TV and film, and the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots will be no exception. Fellow blogger Conrado Falco suspects this one may end up as failed Oscarbait, but I’m willing to give it a go in my grand tradition of seeing anything where someone wears a hoop skirt and a huge wig.
If it does end up not impressing, what other films are worth the royal treatment? Which films depict royalty accurately, salaciously, or are just plain entertaining? Let’s see which films ascend the throne of good cinema…
The Queen (2006)
I almost wish I could include Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in this list, but the honor of morphing into a historical figure goes to Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II learning of the death of former daughter-in-law Princess Diana in a tragic car crash in 1997. If you ever want an accurate depiction of the reserve of the British, this is it. Keeping calm and carrying on may have started as a war slogan, but it surely isn’t inaccurate. It takes place over a seven-day period and is interspersed with actual news footage. And, of course, Michael Sheen as Tony Blair… again and again.
Mirren’s performance was so accurate and compelling that it earned her the Best Actress award at the 79th Academy Awards. Also earning her permanent royal status was her other performance that year as Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC miniseries Elizabeth I. She is ever the queen.
Speaking of Queen Liz the First, the long-reigning monarch was also played by Cate Blanchett, who received an Oscar nomination for her turn. Director Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film follows the 45-year reign of the “Virgin Queen” who overcame odds such as any woman had ever done to become one of the longest-serving monarchs in England’s history.
If you have any interest in 16th century fashion, this one is also a winner, boasting the skills of costume designer Alexandra Byrne.
The Duchess (2008)
I like a film that gives us a look inside the life of a lesser known noble which is the case with the life of the 18th century aristocrat, the Duchess of Devonshire played by the perpetually costumed Keira Knightley. She married the duke (Ralph Fiennes) giving her the aforementioned title and also a loveless life forced to endure her husband’s infidelity and eventual cohabitation with his mistress, played by Hayley Atwell. Knightley’s performance is excellent and I enjoy watching her do what she does best.
The real achievement here, like Elizabeth before it, is the Oscar-winning costume design by Michael O’Connor. It may not be the prestige category in some genres, but it certainly holds weight in this one.
The King’s Speech (2010)
We’re moving into more contemporary territory with Colin Firth filling the role of modern King Albert, father of current queen, Elizabeth II. After his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) scandalously abdicates to marry a divorced American socialite, Prince Albert steps in, but with a debilitating speech impediment that he must overcome to deliver a speech over the radio and thereby find his voice as king. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter co-star.
The film won Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards and Colin Firth won an Oscar for his stellar stuttering Sally-sells-seashells performance.
Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997)
So many powerful ladies represented, so little time! The longest running English monarch pre-Elizabeth II was Mrs. Brown herself, Queen Victoria, played by Dame Judi Dench and co-starring Billy Connolly as her servant and autumn-of-life love after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. This was the first time she played Queen Victoria, the second being her turn in 2017’s Victoria & Abdul.
And because Dame Judi can do no wrong, she snagged both an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win for her performance. Fun fact: Judi Dench also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a scant eight minutes of screen time playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Even more fun fact: That same year, Cate Blanchett lost the Best Actress Oscar for playing the same Elizabeth to Dench’s Shakespeare in Love co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow. Oh the monarchy is a fickle friend.
The Young Victoria (2009)
Let’s turn to Victoria as a younger woman in the early days of her reign with Emily Blunt in the role alongside Rupert Friend as her Prince Albert. Think of it as a prequel to the one above if you’re in for a marathon. Jean-Marc Valée directs and Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, and Jim Broadbent
costar. Bonus if you’re a Downton Abbey fan is that it was written by Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of the show.
Henry V (1989)
Another Judi Dench alert! If you want a lineup of classic British actors (pre-Harry Potter at least), this is the film for you. To no one’s surprise, Kenneth Branagh wrote, directed, and starred as the titular English king. It’s hard to separate Branagh from anything Shakespearean. Sign on for performances from Emma Thompson, Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane, and more. With that lineup and Branagh’s Oscar-nominated performance and direction, how can you go wrong?
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Finally, a mention of the infamously fatal Henry VIII. There are loads of depictions of him in both TV and film (both bad and okay), but this one is a classic in my eyes. It earned six Academy Awards and had great performances from the likes of Orson Welles, Robert Shaw, Nigel Davenport, and Vanessa Redgrave. Keep an eye out for a young John Hurt, too.
Diana (2013), A Royal Night Out (2015), Braveheart (1995), Becket (1964), The Madness of King George (1994), and Mary, Queen of Scots (1971).
Are you a more forgiving costume drama viewer or ready to savage them for their cliches and repetition?
Catherine Clark is a Chicago-based editor and designer who spends time reading, gaming, cooking, and of course, watching movies en masse. You can find her words and work at USA Today, Nerd Wallet, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, MSN, Offbeat Empire, and on her lifestyle blog, BijouxandBits.com.