We have always had a long-standing fascination with royalty as the subject of derision, praise, criticism, pride and general fascination. The people we call “royals” live remarkable lives for their intersection with wealth, historical significance and public interest. This subgenre sits at the intersection of many popular genres, including biopic and period drama, as well as thematically occasionally venturing into the ghostly (spencer) or the comic (The favourite). But center this story on a woman whose political power is suddenly put at direct odds with her social status, and suddenly you have a much more compelling story. We’ve put together a list of our favorite movies about real-life royal women.
The other Boleyn girl
The other Boleyn girl adapts Anne Boleyn’s novel romance tale by the author Philippa Gregory. This version of the love story between Anne (Natalie Portman) and Henry (Eric Bana) begins with a plot to install Anne as Henry’s mistress while he is still married to his first wife Catherine. But their first meeting gets them off to a bad start, and Henry bonds with Anne’s sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson) in place.
Anne and Mary are sent to Henry’s court so the case can continue. After the sisters argue, Anne charms Henry while Mary is bedridden with a difficult pregnancy. This version of events has Anne plotting to pull the strings on Henry, convincing him to break with the Church of England so he can annul his first marriage and marry her instead. Anne quickly becomes pregnant with Elizabeth, who will become one of England’s most famous rulers.
But Henry (famous for his multiple divorced/beheaded wives) is furious with Anne for not producing a male heir. When rumors of an incestuous affair reach him, he has the excuse he needs to have her executed, so he can marry his current mistress. This historical drama is a far cry from the prestige approach many take to event telling, opting instead for a style that borders on soap opera. Check this out if you (like us) don’t believe in the term “guilty pleasure”.
The Duchess is yet another historical drama based on a novel – the biography of Georgiana Cavendish, who was Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century. Georgiana’s status is significantly lower than that of Queen of England, but she is still titled and as such helps Anne’s struggle to prove her worth by producing a male heir for her husband. The marriage between Georgiana (Keira Knightley) and William (Ralph Fiennes) is loveless, and William makes no attempt to hide his infidelities.
Georgiana enters into an extramarital affair, but unlike her husband, she cannot get away with it. He attempts to force her to break off the affair, and she is socially punished when the affair becomes public knowledge. She has a child with her lover, but is only allowed to visit him in secret.
The Duchess comes amid Knightley’s winning streak in period dramas, a genre in which she still shines playing complicated characters. Georgiana is a subject of fascination in part for how her story parallels that of her great-niece Princess Diana, another woman who married an older man only to be quickly disillusioned with his affairs and later punished for having adopted the same behavior.
Elizabeth follows one of England’s oldest monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The film begins with the death of Elizabeth’s older sister, Queen Mary, quickly followed by Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. Much of the film follows Elizabeth and her advisers as they lift England from a dark point and enter a new era which, under her rule, would later be recorded as England’s Golden Age. .
The other half of the film’s narrative is devoted to Elizabeth’s resistance to choosing a husband. Elizabeth quickly learns strategies for gaining and retaining power, as her status as a single woman on the throne puts her in a state of constant peril.
Elizabeth has a secret lover throughout the film, but after his betrayal she dramatically proclaims herself married to England, a position she would not change for the rest of her life and reign. Cate Blanchett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Elizabeth, which was as gorgeous as expected.
Our next entry is about another Queen Elizabeth; Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), specifically focused on the time after the death of Princess Diana, whose death comes months after Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) is elected Prime Minister. The public outpouring of grief for Diana is acknowledged by Blair, but not by the Royal Family.
After the public begins to turn against the royal family, Blair manages to convince the queen to recognize the loss of the country. The movie was written by Peter Morganthe showrunner of Netflix’s excellent historical drama series The crownwhich also follows Queen Elizabeth II and her family.
Morgan’s depictions of the royal family always balance criticism with sympathy, and while for some it may go too far in storybook respect for a custom that feels dated, it’s that attitude that, might- one might say, could be what makes these stories worth telling.
Marie Antoinette is the Sophie Coppola version of the infamous Queen of France. The film begins with Antoinette’s (Kirsten Dunst) marriage to Louis (Jason Schwartzmann), the future king of France. The two are initially unable to conceive and Antoinette grows bored of her life at the French court. She took advantage of the surrounding wealth and soon remade the court in her image of extravagance.
Once Louis was crowned king, the financial situation of France suffered enormously. It is the Queen who bears the brunt of public disfavor in response to the financial crisis, and this unrest adds to the French Revolution. The film ends with Louis and Marie fleeing France.
Coppola brings his signature style to this retelling of real historical events, and in doing so creates a completely unique and entertaining version unlike anything we’ve seen before in the genre. It’s gorgeous, sparkling, and fun in a way that few other movies in this genre can be, and we love it for it.
The brilliant talents of Yorgos Lanthimos and Tony McNamara came together to create The favouritethe story of court women vying for the affection of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne is one of the least successful English queens, but as the monarch of England she remains one of the most powerful people in the world. She is under the influence of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her lover and best friend.
This relationship is threatened by the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), who turns out to be a rival for Anne’s affections. What follows is a darkly comedic tale of a love triangle between the three women, with no real winner.
The film features excellent writing, direction and performance and has been nominated for numerous awards. Among those awards was an Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as a win for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Colman.
Pablo Larrain tells another story of a woman in crisis with spencerthe story of the Christmas holidays where Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) decided to leave her husband. Diana’s mental state during this time is reflected in the haunting atmosphere (Diana is literally haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn).
Prince Charles’ refusal to end his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles has repercussions for Diana and the marriage. Much is said about Diana’s inability to lose herself in the rigid customs of the English royal family, and the price of her assimilation is her sanity. She is treated with indifference and hostility by almost everyone except her sons, with whom the film faithfully depicts Diana’s well-documented romantic relationship.
Many believe it to be Stewart’s best performance to date, and it’s certainly among his finest work. She earned her first Oscar nomination for her work, and her performance is backed by stunning visuals and a beautiful score by the composer. Johnny Greenwood.
For those days when you just want to watch certified royal drama.
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