Only recently did Queen Elizabeth make a breakthrough on screen. Like Shakespearean stage veterans who suddenly find themselves in a movie franchise late in their lives, the Queen finds herself with the starring role at the 2012 London Olympics, opposite Daniel Craig 007. Craig, almost paralyzed by his actor’s prestige, walks forcefully down the palace aisle to Her side and the corgi, with a strange, fickle expression, perhaps unsure of how – or if – to indicate his awareness of the comic madness underlying this unprecedented event.
The Queen was amazed, happy and even shocked to some of her audience, who might have feared that she might be embarrassed or humiliated if something went wrong in the entrance. Do not worry. I have sailed through it. And on the platinum jubilee in February of this year, when she played opposite another icon of the movie franchise, Paddington Bear, she was more relaxed, happily producing a marmalade sandwich out of her handbag and merrily tapping into the beat of Queens We Will Rock You on her cup.
But these outrageous flicks came at the end of her long life, when the notion of rude showbiz was gradually phased out and the Queen was allowed to be, perhaps expected to be, more than a good sport. Parallel to this, there was a real show of actors playing the role of the Queen netflix crownWith Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton playing the late British monarch at different ages.
These are ongoing, intimate plagiarisms that would have been unimaginable until very recently and are still partly responsible for the BBC’s reluctance to produce the show – it wasn’t just a matter of budget. But before that, there weren’t many big dramas of the Queen, nothing compared to a legend like Winston Churchill, who has been portrayed countless times on screens big and small.
Having said that, the Queen has always been a movie character in that she has forever been shaking hands with the shining stars of royal leadership shows throughout her epic reign. There’s almost no Hollywood movie star who hasn’t performed with her at Odeon’s reception line in Leicester Square in London, a spectacle that recurs endlessly with new supporting cast over the years, a kind of silent light comedy in which the Queen says nothing but Harmful to the star laughing with pleasure on a streak that was rather plain freaky and flirtatious. what was? The Queen’s performance has remained similar to the Sphinx and Zeligesque for decades.
But the Queen’s absence from films had a social as well as a dramatic one: in some ways her ubiquity somehow prefigured the necessary novelty of any true autobiographical film, however respectable it may be. She was on British local news throughout the year, cutting ribbons and meeting cheerful dignitaries, and on British national television every year for Christmas broadcasts, whose formality was increasingly adored when the Queen became the grandmother of the nation. This increased familiarity, combined with residual deference, means that the film is hardly ever well secured.
Moreover, film producers may have been concerned about the Queen’s mysterious and essential inactivity. It was still the center of the turning circle of national and international events. The Queen did nothing – her subjects performed the dramatic heroism. All this contributed to the ancient tradition that playing the role of the queen was in bad taste and even sacrilege to the quasi-unwritten constitution of ours.
But, on top of all this, the Queen did not need to appear in a movie – she was already in a movie! The Queen of the United Kingdom was already the star of that 24/7 fantasy giant about her gorgeous status. Many people have dreamed of the Queen and many have reported that meeting the Queen was actually like a dream. It was like a dream when I met her at a BAFTA in 2013.
Like everyone else, I reported Windsor Castle that evening with great excitement. (How bored the Queen was of this kind of semi-ironic delirium in the people I met.) I was given strict instructions: Never speak to her before she speaks to you; Which is “Your Majesty” the first time, “Ma’am” after that, to rhyme with “Bam”. (Don’t get confused and call her “Pam.”)
I found myself on a set with the Queen that included Minnie Driver, who handled the situation brilliantly, and the CEO of Warner Bros., who didn’t get a memo about not starting conversations. “What’s your favorite horror movie, Your Majesty?” He said. A slight silence descended. “What is the name of this horror movie that begins with the letter G?” asked the Queen softly, her eyes dull in mine. Several courtiers and staff turned to me in anticipation, as if they looked like giant playing cards from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Silence extended. The room was melting. I couldn’t think of a single word starting with the letter G. At the end I said, “Is that the Grinch, Your Majesty?” “yes!” said the queen, beaming. “Greenwich!”
The Queen has appeared in documentaries, of course, such as 1953’s A Queen Is Crowned, written by Christopher Frey and narrated aloud by Laurence Olivier – a film that did well to establish a model for live television coverage of all the royal events afterward. She herself gave the green light to the 1969 BBC documentary The Royals, which showed her in what was at the time in a remarkably intimate fashion, but the royals themselves seemed to have other ideas, because it was not repeated, it finally appeared on YouTube.
But the first truly feature-length drama came in 2006, with Stephen Frears’ The Queen, written by Peter Morgan (who went on to write The Crown). Honestly, the film was about the Queen’s challenge to enter the world of modern media after Diana’s death and to clarify her position. The portrayal of Helen Mirren was a delight, and it is clear that she tried very hard to make His Majesty everything that her fans hoped she would be in private: wise, witty, patient, fragile, cited weakly – though without justification – through all the hard work that you play. It was taller and smaller than the actual queen, and less luxurious, the word “off” became “orff” only once.
Like Prunella Scales in Alan Bennett’s TV play A Question Of Attribution in 1991, the actress playing the Queen has to make her a shrewd and brilliant critic of the modern world as it unfolds before her, though not too comically, and not too flashy. Is this what the Queen was really like? Who do you know?
Samantha Bond played the Queen in the Larky 2018 TV movie The Queen And I, based on Sue Townsend’s novel about the removal of a Republican government from the throne. While Townsend’s fiction is fun, there’s perhaps a kind of dereliction of fictional duty in simply putting the Queen in a strange, counterfactual situation: it looks like a Bantu Spitting Image, not cinema. The challenge is to get involved in real life.
When Stella Junit skillfully played her role in Pablo Larryn’s 2021 film Spencer, with Kristen Stewart as the very hapless Diana, and spent her last birthday in Sandringham before her marriage finally fell apart, she was in an interesting position. The Queen she was playing had to be somewhat central to the whole situation yet also peripheral – and either way, she was almost invisible. The star of that drama is of course Diana, who the movie puts her in all sorts of surreal and hallucinatory situations in which there is naturally no room for the stifling old queen. (When this story was filmed in The Crown, Coleman’s Queen had a much more direct role.)
The filmmakers may have felt more emboldened to engage with the Queen in her younger life before the Queen. Canadian actress Sarah Gadon gave an amazing performance as Princess Elizabeth in 2015 A royal night outan entertaining what-if fantasy about what she and Princess Margaret might have been like in VE Night 1945 when they were allowed out of the palace to mingle undercover with revelers.
I wrote a novel about this adventure in 2013 called Night of Triumph, which addressed the same basic difficulty. How do you put the queen in a semi-romantic situation? To imagine a sweet encounter with Prince Philip would feel rude – that constitutional tug of war again – but to imagine a shiver with someone else would be a mistake and a creative move. So I imagined Princess Elizabeth as a mature innocent being taken advantage of by an unnatural gangster. Meanwhile, the film gave the princess a very pleasant platonic encounter.
A Royal Night Out is a racy, charismatic narrative of a queen as a young woman – though, like any other film, she was trapped by this constitutional and existential difficulty. The Queen was never free to do exactly what she wanted to do. She didn’t have the freedom to be the protagonist – even though VE Night’s adventure was the closest she’s ever had.
The Real Queen is a mystery that movies haven’t quite tackled: perhaps in the coming years, she’ll inspire more engaging, more stereotypical, and more secular performances, such as Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth I or Frances McDormand Verne in Nomadland. A movie about the Queen might be a demo, low-budget, non-Netflix account of her widowed years, her wartime experiences, her relationship with her mother, or (most painfully of all) her relationship with her favorite son, Andrew.
Elizabeth II is a mystery that cinema has yet to solve. Her great moment on the big screen has yet to be resolved. – guardian