The United States has something of a fascination with British royalty. It’s an obsession that’s been around for some time now, and bizarre as it is, it’s resulted in media coverage of royal births with such concentrated intensity that it’s always a shock to find that the infant only has one head, and films about said royalty.
The latter usually comes in two different varieties. There are the movies featuring young and attractive princes and princesses. These genealogy lottery winners are usually mixing with the plebeian folk — so viewers can feel vicariously included in the fantasy — and the plot is usually synonymous with a live-action remake of Cinderella masquerading as a modern day love. The conflict often focuses on the alienating pitfalls of being royal, wealthy, or just like, really, really pretty. Makeovers, beach parties, and shopping montages seem to be an integral part of the plot.
On the other hand, there are the more historically relevant movies which tend to be of higher quality — and usually target a slightly older age group — i.e. out of the early teens. Here are five well reviewed historical dramas about royalty, both in more recent history, and in ages past.
1. The Queen
The Queen stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II just following the death of Princess Diana. The film is a unique look at both the royal family after a tragedy, and the workings of English politics with a focus on Prime Minister Tony Blair. “A lesser director might make all of this deadly earnest, but Frears treats it as what you might call a tragi-comedy of manners,” wrote Bob Mondello of NPR, “perfectly serious but human foibles everywhere.” Rotten Tomatoes critics gave the film a 97% rating, and users gave it a 76% likability rating, possibly because viewers were more bored and less charmed by the subtlety of a “comedy of manners” than critics.
2. The King’s Speech
Like The Queen, this film takes some of the perfect poise and magic out of the idea of a royal family, humanizing characters, showing weaknesses and strengths, and ultimately taking on one of the least romantic topics you could pick: speech therapy. The movie stars Colin Firth as King George VI, a man thrust into the position of King after his father’s death and his brother’s abdication in order to marry a divorced woman.
The new king, Albert, was a lifetime sufferer of a debilitating stutter, but his new position demanded a capability for giving speeches during a difficult political time for his country, leading him to work with a speech therapist with some unusual and eccentric techniques. The film received a viewers rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a critics rating of 94%.
3. The Young Victoria
The Young Victoria follows the early days of Queen Victoria and how she came to marry Prince Albert, his role in her political attitudes, and her own journey to power. It’s considerably closer to your average “falling in love” romance with crowns and court intrigue, but with Victoria being crowned and coming into a position of importance rather than the reverse position you see in many such accounts. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 76%.
Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for best actress, and the film overall was nominated best picture in 1999. Director Shekhar Kapur was also nominated for a Golden Globe as best director for the film. Elizabeth is hardly a cheery look at the life of Queen Elizabeth, instead revealing just how much the role took and demanded of her as a leader. It goes into the challenges she faced as an unmarried woman and the political pressures this brought on, as well as the religious venom she dealt with during her time as queen. “Kapur cunningly confuses gender roles, equates sex with death, and rattles through dark, stony passions with some considerable panache,” writes Time Out critic of the film.
5. The Other Boleyn Girl
This film helps to demonstrate how the problems of royalty — or soon to be royalty — can be far less about romance, and far more about reproductive capabilities than the Princess Diaries would have you believe. The story looks at two sisters both competing to become the next queen by way of a marriage with King Henry VIII, even if that means throwing the other under the bus/horse drawn carriage. The film is based off a book by the same name written by Phillippa Gregory. But while the novel took a great deal of criticism for failure to give a truly historical account of events, the movie — starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as Ann and Mary Boleyn respectively — still managed a 62% audience response score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics didn’t love it, but the average audience goer apparently didn’t agree.