Queen Elizabeth II's passing in September 2022 brought about the end to the longest monarchical rule in the history of the Commonwealth. The British royal family has always had a testy relationship with the media, understanding that playing the game of press coverage is necessary but detesting that very fact.
But when it comes to films about the royal family, they have had far less control over creative elements, imaginings, and interpretations, making their many portrayals all the more rich for viewers with a penchant for royal drama. Here's EW's list of the 15 best movies about the British royal family, from centuries-old feuds to suspected love affairs and beyond.
<i>The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex</i> (1939)
The 1939 classic romance film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex imagines a fictional love affair between the famously chaste Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn), who hopes to be king. The movie was a huge hit commercially and critically, with EW writing years later that "The gorgeous sets and costumed elegance are pure 1930s Warner Bros., and the film's passions are as bold as its colors."
As far as royal movies go, this one is a stunner for those interested in a more nuanced take on the life of Queen Elizabeth I, as Davis' passionate love with the 15 years younger Earl of Essex is unlike any depiction we've seen since.The story is one that contradicts the "Virgin Queen" mythology that surrounds the first Elizabeth, and the movie itself offers a layered take on a woman who continues to fascinate historians, royal enthusiasts, and even the uninitiated among us.
<i>The Lion In Winter</i> (1968)
1968's The Lion In Winter features Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane, a married couple who have understandably been at odds since Henry had Eleanor imprisoned for treason. The movie takes place entirely on Christmas Eve, when Henry allowed Eleanor out for the holiday so the estranged pair could take on the task of choosing which of their three sons will be named heir once the King dies.
This retelling of Henry and Eleanor's dispute is at times dramatic and even bawdry, as EW's 1999 review notes, "With all the name calling and sexual machinations, it could be billed as 'Jerry Springer Visits the 12th Century.'" In addition to its stark cattiness, the film is an important addition to any royal film experience for its tremendous acting, which sees Sir Anthony Hopkins in his feature film debut as eldest son Richard, as well as a Best Actress win for Hepburn.
<i>Anne of a Thousand Days</i> (1969)
While Anne of a Thousand Days has somehow vanished from the top of most people's minds when it comes to royal retellings, the 1969 film starring French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold is a lush and critically well-received addition to any royal film canon. The role of Anne Boelyn, ill-fated wife of King Henry VIII (Richard Burton), was pursued by actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor before being awarded to Bujold, who would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for her efforts.
The movie is worth a rewatch or a first-time viewing, for anything if not Anne's ability to keep the king at bay for so long. As historian and Anne Boelyn expert Alison Weir explained to NPR in a 2010 interview, young Anne put off any physical relationship with Henry until he had written her more than 15 letters and was promising marriage.
Bujold does a masterful job at offering another look at the woman who would ultimately end up beheaded by the very man who tried so desperately to woo her. While the film makes a few claims that it can't back up — most notably that Anne voluntarily chose execution to ensure that her daughter Elizabeth would remain heir to the throne — it offers a lovely (and lengthy) look into the life of a figure so misinterpreted and misunderstood.
<i>Henry V</i> (1989)
Before Timothée Chalamet took on the role of Prince Hal in 2019, Kenneth Branagh introduced us to the man Hal becomes: King Henry V. This 1989 film was celebrated for both its beauty and its telling of a history that predates the modern royal family by centuries. Branagh's Henry V is certainly regal in a way that will delight even the most punctilious royal historian, which is one big reason why it's a cornerstone in any royal film library.
A remake of the 1944 movie starring Laurence Olivier in the title role, this rendition set during the Hundred Years' War sees King Henry V strike France after an attack on his personal character by King Charles VI. It also offers an updated take on the Shakespearean play that some may find difficult to sift through, with EW describing the movie as "a riveting epic about loyalty, courage, betrayal, and regret in the rite of passage of a young man who happens to be a king."
<i>Mrs. Brown</i> (1997)
In her first turn as Queen Victoria, Judi Dench rises as a grief-stricken monarch left uninspired to lead her great empire following the death of her husband Prince Albert. In an effort to coax the Queen out of her depressed seclusion, the royal court dispatches the monarchy's loyal Scottish hunting guide, John Brown (Billy Connolly), to inspire her back into action. But their plan soon backfires when Victoria takes an extraordinary liking to him as his personal influence soon becomes a perceived political threat.
It's a tantalizing tale, not for an overt love affair, but for the implied circumstances of the growing influence Brown possessed over the Queen and thus the nation. The loaded title "Mrs. Brown" (a backhanded nickname that circled the courts at the time) winks to the potentially romantic nature of their relationship, though the film never directly engages with the very real rumors of a sexual element. Even so, the subtle chemistry between Dench and Connolly is palpable as we see the once inconsolable Queen blossom through their unlikely and unconventional friendship, whatever form it may or may not have taken.
Cate Blanchett is very nearly perfect in this cinematic introduction to Queen Elizabeth I, who took the monarchy by storm when she was crowned in 1558 at the age of 25. Blanchett personifies the qualities most readily associated with the Queen, beginning as young and full of confidence, though occasionally misguided when wielding her power and intellect. By the film's conclusion, only one year after it begins, Elizabeth has survived an attempt on her life and has become hardened, suspicious of others, and protective of herself and country.
This portrayal of Elizabeth I as a feisty young girl, one who rapidly grows into a young woman prepared to lead a tumultuous nation, is unique unto itself. And Blanchett is irrefutably in her element, displaying stunning grace as her character dedicates herself to the public by announcing she is married to England, being henceforth known as the "Virgin Queen." While historical plot points have been embellished or altered to suit the film's goals, the core of the story — and its take on the young Queen — rings true.
<i>The Queen</i> (2006)
The 2006 political drama The Queen is about a major event in the history of the modern British monarchy: the 1997 death of Princess Diana. Told largely from the perspectives of Queen Elizabeth II, who is spectacularly played by Dame Helen Mirren, and then Prime Minister Tony Blair, the film details the two very different reactions both had to the death of Britain's beloved Princess of Wales.
Mirren won an Oscar for her turn as Queen Elizabeth, balancing the Royal's affinity for stoicism with the gravity of their present tragedy. Film critic Roger Ebert praised both her physical likeness to the monarch and the mental and emotional weight she brought to an already emotionally wrought movie. Mirren herself has held on to the role, and turned to Instagram on the day Queen Elizabeth II passed away to write, "I am proud to be an Elizabethan. We mourn a woman, who, with or without the crown, was the epitome of nobility."
<i>Elizabeth: The Golden Age</i> (2007)
Cate Blanchett returns as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The film picks up in 1585, nearly 30 years after the events of 1998's Elizabeth. This time around, there is renewed pressure on England's "Virgin Queen" to marry and produce an heir, lest her rival and cousin (and prisoner) Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) ascend to the throne in the unfortunate event of Elizabeth's death.
Blanchett was thoughtful about playing the character yet again, and telling EW, "There is much to be said about being a female leader… She was so far ahead of her time, if you think about it. I have no doubt that if Botox had been available in her day, Elizabeth would have been the first in line for an injection. She was quite vain."
Blanchett became the first actress to earn an Oscar for playing the same character twice, though EW's review at the time thought it didn't quite live up to its predecessor. Still, the movie is a must-see for all consumers of royal fact and fiction, as it weaves an enthralling retelling that ultimately serves to remind us of the essence of Queen Elizabeth I.
<i>The Young Victoria</i> (2009)
Emily Blunt offers a fun and spirited take on Queen Victoria, who took over the monarchy as a teenager following the death of King William IV. The Young Victoria sticks closely to the known facts of Victoria's life and her ascent to the throne while also giving Blunt plenty of room to nurture the character. Much as she did in real life, the film's Victoria is tasked with wading through uncertainty to find out who she can — and cannot — trust, ultimately coming out on top as one of the most successful monarchs to date.
While the film isn't as immersive as others about the royal family in some ways (chiefly that it chooses historical accuracy over dramatization of important events), that's also precisely why it's one of the best, especially for royal historians and fact collectors. Blunt's interpretation of a young woman who suddenly comes into unexpected power is vibrant, and just the right amount of constrained to fit in with the stories of Britain's young Queen.
<i>The King's Speech</i> (2010)
In 1936, King Edward VIII surprised everyone by abdicating the throne. Among other things, this thrust his younger brother into the spotlight, and King George VI (Colin Firth) soon found himself sitting through his own coronation. What would otherwise be the honor of a lifetime instead inspires distress, as seen in Best Picture winner The King's Speech, which follows the monarch as he hires a therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to help him overcome a lifelong stammer.
The movie offers a moving look at a man who never anticipated ruling a nation. The king and his therapist become incredibly close, and as Firth told EW upon the film's release, "It's a story of love and friendship between two men across some very difficult social divides. We called it the bromance. You know, boy meets therapist, boy loses therapist, boy gets therapist."
Firth himself is a marvel in the movie, taking a character that many of us could never relate to — a member of the British royal family living in the 1930s — and lending him stark emotional vulnerability. As EW's critic writes in our review, a "performance of nuance and soul" is par for the course for Firth, but the actor's exceptional ability to deliver unprecedented depth time and time again is what makes his turn as King George VI so remarkable.
<i>Victoria and Abdul</i> (2017)
Dame Judi Dench returns at Queen Victoria in this 2017 film about an unlikely friendship between the royal and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her Indian Muslim servant. Their relationship predictably shocked 1800s England, beginning when Abdul travels from India to present the Queen a gift at her Golden Jubilee. The movie dives into what really existed between the Queen — who was perpetually mourning the loss of her husband — and the young man who she had bring his wife and mother-in-law to his new royal home.
Dench is perfect as the lonesome Victoria, deliciously diving into her grief in a way that is tangible while bringing levity and wonder into the life of a woman so familiar with dismal dress. This melancholy is what makes her friendship with Abdul so endearing, as it's clear that the Queen has needed something, or someone, to lighten her days.
Dench told EW that it was important to portray Victoria in a way that might surprise us all, explaining, "I just have to believe that she possessed more humor than we give her credit for, especially in this final part of her life with this wonderful young man, who she could talk to and tell jokes to. That shows such great spirit, doesn't it, and something we don't attach to that rather solemn view we have of her."
Fazal, meanwhile, portrays a young man who is open and trusting, and who appears to see something beneficial in his friendship that goes beyond royal favor. The resulting film is touching and even emotionally soft, leaving the viewer believing in a friendship that was pure for both parties involved.
<i>Mary Queen of Scots</i> (2018)
At just 16 years old, Mary Stuart became Queen of France only to be widowed two year later. Leaving France for her home country Scotland, the young monarch intended to claim her place on the throne — which was technically within her rights as the only living child of King James V. The problem? Elizabeth I was very much in charge of both England and Scotland at the time, and Mary would need to overthrow her.
This is the basis for the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots. Saoirse Ronan is impeccable as Mary, bringing a strength to the screen that had been missing from earlier portrayals of the would-be ruler. Margot Robbie's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, meanwhile, is equally assured, and as EW's review notes, the two women work together to weave a modern, feminist retelling of a centuries old rivalary.
Part of the magic comes from Ronan and Robbie being kept apart for almost the entire shoot, much like the real-life queens themselves, who rarely interacted and became enigmas to each other. As director Josie Rourke told EW, this tension was crucial to the film's emotional complex when the women finally meet face-to-face. She explained, "We really wanted to have our version of that famous scene, with these two women looking at each other and being confronted with their choices — their personal choices, their political choices. It's a moment that's deeply personal."
<i>The Favourite</i> (2018)
While Olivia Colman is likely seared into the minds of fans of The Crown as Queen Elizabeth II now and forevermore, she also expertly portrayed Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos' 2018 dark period comedy The Favourite. Colman is fascinating as the oft-ill monarch, who reportedly suffered from illnesses and maladies for much of her reign. As a result, her castle is filled with those who are often scheming, such as Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and those who are seeking redemption, such as her young cousin Abigail (Emma Stone).
With Lady Sarah the de facto leader due to Queen Anne's near-constant sickness, she and Abigail engage in a fierce battle for the Queen's favor, resorting to any number of tactics that might boost their standing in the eyes of the ruler. Far from being just another movie about the royal family, The Favourite is a simmering melting pot of royal fanfiction laced with fact, but that doesn't stop it from being a must-see for historical enthusiasts.. As EW critic Chris Nashawaty writes, "The Favourite is strange enough and original enough and daring enough to please his longtime fans, while hopefully proselytizing a legion of new ones."
<i>The King</i> (2019)
In 2019, Netflix brought us its take on the story of King Henry V when he was still known as Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales. Hal, many of his important royal descendents, finds himself tasked with ruling the nation at an age where he might be more prone to having fun. While both history buffs and adherents of Shakespeare's plays (many of which inspired the film) may be ruffled at the movie's inaccuracies and omissions, as EW's review notes, director David Michôd "ever lets the viewer doubt for a minute that young Hal will put down the ale mug and find his inner warrior — or that once he does he will be better and cleverer and nobler than any other pretender to the throne."
Hal is admirably played by Timothée Chalamet, who told EW that he was proud of taking on the role following his breakthrough success in Call Me By Your Name. Chalamet explained his character as"someone with good intent — or at least acting with good intent and honor — thrust into a circumstance that, even with decisive action to go in the opposite direction of his father, is weak in comparison to the pre-existing institutions of power."
This is clear as Chalamet deftly depicts a young boy-turned-man who must leave behind an easier life of substance and women to take on the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson). Chalamet's Henry rises to the occasion with a fierceness that calls to mind great warriors of the past, which he told EW was aided by his focus on the fact that "the idea wasn't that Henry was kicking ass but rather he could survive and that the act of valor comes in his presence in the battle."
Spencer takes a brief moment in time — a Christmas spent at the royal family's home Sandringham — and adds a heavy dose of mental torment to exemplify what Princess Diana might have experienced at the hands of the British royal family. Kristen Stewart shines as Princess Diana, and is especially beguiling when interacting with the two young boys who play Prince William and Prince Harry.
While not the traditional biopic that some might have hoped for, Spencer is a compelling take on a moment in time — and it's a take that's not easily forgotten. The film employs jarring dream sequences, the ghost of Anne Boelyn, and the truths that the audience knows but Stewart's Diana has yet to realize, such as her inevitable separation from Prince Charles and her slow-approaching, tragic passing, all the while offering a window into what Diana's mindstate might have been.
Stewart is both dazzling and unnerving as Diana, lending a special tenderness towards her children despite the psychological misgivings from the rest of the family. As EW's review states, "The frozen prison of a castle — she repeatedly complains that she wishes the staff would turn up the heating — becomes cozy when Diana's capacity for love, which melted hearts the world over but failed to touch the icy family she married into, is given a purpose in the sons to whom she was so devoted."