The 10 Best Portrayals Of British Monarchs On Film | History Hit

The 10 Best Portrayals Of British Monarchs On Film

Tim Weinberg

22 Jul 2020
Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Henry V (1989)

Respected opinions were sought, votes tallied and numbers crunched. Then, in the spirit of the autocratic behaviour most of these performances represent, all the evidence and advice was roundly ignored.

Here is a subjective list of the 10 best cinematic portrayals of British monarchs, ordered chronologically by reign. May it stimulate as well as possibly infuriate.

Henry II (Reigned 1154-1189)
Played by Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968)

The piercing blue eyes of Peter O’Toole have twice been engaged in bravura performances of Henry II.

It was a tortuous road to get the story of Henry and his wayward Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, told on film. Literary greats such as Tennyson and Eliot attempted dramatizations, with varying degrees of success.

Finally, the French left-wing firebrand, Jean Anouilh, caught the right balance between humour and pathos in his play, Becket. The film adaptation is aided by Richard Burton’s superb performance as a gaunt looking Becket.

Peter O’Toole as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (Credit: Public Domain).

If Becket is about the souring of the love inherent to friendship, then The Lion in Winter addresses embittering family love.

Taking place 13 years after Becket’s martyrdom, Henry II is now a broken man whom no amount of secular power can mend. His wife and children openly plot against him, like vultures hovering over their next prey.

O’Toole was nominated for Oscars for both of his performances, and won neither. He went on to receive another six nominations in his career, all to no avail. Katharine Hepburn won her third Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.

Edward I (Reigned 1272-1307)
Played by Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart (1995)

Edward I reigned at a time when to be known as “A Great and Terrible King” really meant something. Loved – and feared – by his people and the whole of Christendom, Edward was as equally hated and feared by almost everyone else.

Known as “the Hammer of the Scots,” he also presided over the expulsion of Jews, after they had been robbed blind and left destitute. Nowadays he would be called a bad man, but historically he is considered a great king.

In Braveheart, amidst Mel Gibson’s usual fascination with baiting and hating the English, and graphic suffering, Patrick McGoohan towers with a powerhouse performance of a monarch used to getting his own way.

The monarch may never have athrown his gay son’s lover out of a window, but in this case the poetic license is wholly in keeping with Edward I and his legacy.

Chris Barker, historian at the Royal Mint Museum takes Dan through some of the rarest coins in the collection from within the vaults, unravelling what the coinage reveals about monarchs from the Norman conquest right through to the 20th century, including the coins created for Edward VIII but were never released in light of his abdication.
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Henry V (Reigned 1413-1422)
Played by Kenneth Branagh in Henry V (1989)

One of the few times cinema and Shakespeare conspire and collude is with this, Shakespeare’s most popular historic play. As patriotically stirring as the late Dame Vera Lynn, Henry V is invoked and produced at times of low morale among the British people.

As is usually the case, the flipside to honour and chivalry is wholesale slaughter, running into the thousands, as well as a general disregard for anything foreign.

Whilst Laurence Olivier delivered a powerful king in Henry V (1944), his version is pipped by Branagh’s production, by virtue of the ease of delivery of the text and superb support from Paul Scofield, Ian Holm and Emma Thompson.

Henry VIII (Reigned 1509-47)
Played by Robert Shaw in A Man for all Seasons (1966)

“The man every man wants to be and all women want to be with…” Sorry, that was James Bond. Henry VIII was almost the polar opposite of this. Once athletic and handsome, he became bloated, disease riddled and despondent. And yet, he’s always a hit at the box-office, though at times a little more than a pantomime villain.

He has been portrayed by Charles Laughton in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). Everyone has their own favourite Henry VIII, but Robert Shaw captures him at the height of his powers and influence.

The struggle between a Henry and a Thomas not only echoes the power struggle of our first entry, but also highlights once again that if you go to war with a king, you’ll most likely lose your head.

Robert Shaw in A Man For All Seasons (Credit: Highland Films/CC)

Elizabeth I (Reigned 1558-1603)
Played by Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

The notion of a Warrior Queen seems to have enthralled Brits ever since Boudicca fastened scythes to her chariot wheels. At the cinema Elizabeth I is a perennial favourite, with only Queen Victoria having more screen portrayals.

So many great actors have impersonated Elizabeth: Vanessa Redgrave, Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Miranda Richardson in Blackadder, and even Quentin Crisp in Orlando. Good Queen Bess, however, is the role that Blanchett was born to play, twice.

In Elizabeth, she is young and flighty. By the second film, she is ready for a bloody war with Spain. Like O’Toole and Dench – also ‘double monarchs’ – we actually believe in this characterisation, which ages in real-time no less.

Blanchett received Oscar nominations for both films.

Charles I (Reigned 1625-1649)
Played by Alec Guinness in Cromwell (1970)

Set in a horrendously bloody and divisive time, Alec Guinness actually become the arrogant God-given monarch destined to lose his head. It’s an astonishing personification, up there with the greatest of biographical performances.

The film rightly won an Academy Award for costume design, Guinness’ Charles could have stepped straight out of a Van Dyke portrait. Oliver Cromwell, played by Richard Harris, is no angel either. His initial idealism gives way to growing displays of ruthlessness and dictatorship.

It was Harris’s performance that captured nominations and awards at the time.

Tom Holland sits down with Dan to talk about the history of Christianity, and how the religion has shaped morality in Western civilisation to this day.
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Queen Anne (Reigned 1702-1714)
Played by Olivia Coleman in The Favourite (2018)

Before this film, very few people knew much about Queen Anne, yet her reign came at the juncture of a Stuart period of revolution, war and unprecedented domestic suffering, the adoption of the German Hanoverians, 200 years of peace and stability and the codifying of most tropes, forever to be designated as “English”.

Set after Anne outlived all of her children, causing a crisis of succession and her increasing isolation, The Favourite portrays the misjudgements loneliness can cause and their exploitation by the ambitious and unscrupulous.

The Favourite marked Coleman’s meteoric rise from TV comedy actress to Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister.

George III (Reigned 1760-1820)
Played by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (1994)

It’s fair to say that the transformation of this production from cult play to box office blockbuster caught everyone by surprise.

Rupert Everett and Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (Credit: MGM/CC)

The surprisingly moving story of George’s descent into madness is definitely helped by the superlative talent on display. Nigel Hawthorne excels as the king, yet he lost out on an Academy Award to Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump.

Special mention must go to the dependable Ian Holm as the Doctor and Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte. Historical biopics attract the cream of the acting profession, with Shakespearean actors of note vying for these plum roles.

Victoria (Reigned 1837-1901)
Played by Judi Dench in Mrs Brown (1997) and Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Portrayed on screen more than any other monarch, Queen Victoria’s reign of over sixty years certainly had myriad high and low points. Although separated by twenty years, Judi Dench’s films have similar stories.

Her Majesty, forever in mourning, strikes up a seemingly inappropriate relationship with, God forbid, “foreigners” – the Scotsman John Brown, who she may have married in secret, and an Indian.

Mrs Brown was originally made for television and then, like others here, and other portrayals of Victoria such as Emily Blunt’s The Young Victoria, became a worthy hit at the cinema.

Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown (Credit: Public Domain)

Elizabeth II (Reign 1952- )
Played by Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006)

There aren’t that many film roles that garnered a Best Actor Oscar and an invitation to dinner at Buckingham Palace.

The film is set in the days following Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, when the Royal Family retained what they felt was a dignified silence. The public though judged their lack of visible grief as cold and out of touch.

The brilliance of the narrative and performance is in presenting our beloved Queen at her most unpopular, and then showing how she recaptured our hearts.

Michael Sheen is brilliant as Tony Blair but it’s not a great film; Prince Charles mugs and gurns, more Goon Show character than fan. Also the symbolism of the stag scene is so heavy-handed as to warrant a warning. Despite all this, Mirren makes a wonderful Queen.


Tim Weinberg