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.
The piercing blue eyes of Peter O’Toole have twice been engaged in bravura performances of Henry II, in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).
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 dramatisations, 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. If Becket is about the souring of the love inherent to friendship, then The Lion in Winter addresses embittering family love.
The Lion in Winter takes place 13 years after Becket’s martyrdom, and depicts Henry II as 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, but won neither.
In Braveheart (1995), 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.
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 equally polarising amongst 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.
The monarch may never have thrown his gay son’s lover out of a window, but in this case the poetic license is largely in keeping with Edward I and his legacy.
One of the few times cinema and Shakespeare conspire and collude is with this, one of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays. As patriotically stirring as the late Dame Vera Lynn, Henry V (1989) is invoked and produced at times of low morale among the British people, with Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation being accompanied by superb supporting performances from Paul Scofield, Ian Holm and Emma Thompson.
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.
Once athletic and handsome, Henry VIII 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 in A Man for all Seasons (1966). 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.
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 Cate Blanchett was born to play twice in in Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
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.
Set during a bloody and divisive time, Alec Guinness in Cromwell (1970) portrays 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, as Guinness’ Charles could have stepped straight out of a Van Dyke portrait. Harris’s performance earned a slew of nominations and awards.
Before The Favourite (2018), very few people knew much about Queen Anne, portrayed here by Olivia Coleman. However, her fascinating 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 that were 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.
It’s fair to say that the transformation of the production of The Madness of King George from cult play to the 1994 box office blockbuster caught everyone by surprise. 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, though 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.
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 Mrs Brown (1997) and Victoria and Abdul (2017) have similar stories.
Her Majesty, forever in mourning, strikes up a seemingly inappropriate relationship with ‘foreigners’ – the Scotsman John Brown, who she may have married in secret, and an Indian named Abdul Karim. 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.
There aren’t that many film roles that garnered a best actor Oscar and an invitation to dinner at Buckingham Palace – however, Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006) does just that. 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, however, judged their lack of visible grief as cold and out of touch.
The brilliance of the narrative and performance is in presenting the beloved Queen Elizabeth II at her most unpopular, before showing how she recaptured the public’s hearts.