The King's Speech
"The King's Speech"

The best movies about British royalty for a regal film night

Ahead of King Charles III's coronation, get in the mood for monarchy with these films about the UK's most posh and powerful family

Matthew SingerPhil de Semlyen
Contributor: Phil de Semlyen
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Sequels are everywhere at the moment, and the British royal family is no exception. With Charles III officially arriving in early May when the coronation takes place in the UK, it’s a good time to look back at what the movies has brought to our understanding of royalty down the years. Maybe King Charles is perusing the filmography of the Windsors, Tudors, Stuarts, Hanoverians and co – we can be pretty sure he’s had at least a sneaky look at The Crown – to see what he can learn from the movies ahead of taking the crown.

And the answer? Avoid love triangles (erm, additional love triangles), remain composed in a crisis and don’t do anything that Queen Anne does in The Favourite. In short: avoid anything that will one day inspire a Hollywood screenwriter to put pen to paper. Because these days, an uneventful reign is a good reign.

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Best movies about British royalty

  • Film
  • Drama
The Queen (2006)
The Queen (2006)

Stuff your ‘awards bait’ sneers in a sack. Sure, on paper, Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth screams ‘automatic Oscar’, but The Queen earns its prestige from the one-two punch of director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan, who each specialise in turning talky dramas about the privileged and powerful into tense, conversational boxing matches. And Mirren fully earns her Academy Award (and Golden Globe and BAFTA) as well. Portraying the queen in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, she manages to find a way inside a largely unknowable matriarch without giving in to easy caricature.  

  • Film
  • Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Easily the weirdest entry on this list, Greek maverick Yorgos Lanthimos’s ink-black historical comedy is nonetheless rooted in some level of truth. In the early 18th century, a sapphic love triangle did purportedly occur between a gout-stricken Queen Anne (wonderfully portrayed by Olivia Colman) and a pair of contentious, social-climbing cousins (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) one of which was an ancestor of Winston Churchill. Whatever the factual details, though, Lanthimos emphasises the nastiness of the three-pronged rivalry, and with its odd angles and fisheye lenses, it comes across as a sort of concussed daydream.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

​Like an ’80s high-school movie in reverse​, this Best Picture nominee introduces Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth​ I as a kind of Early Modern thirst trap, before slowly transforming her into a virgin. But then, being Queen of England in a time otherwise dominated by scheming men (yes you, Christopher Eccleston's Duke of Norfolk) required the kind of smarts and instincts that are so brilliantly communicated​ ​by Blanchett​ in her breakout role. Sequel Elizabeth: the Golden Age was so bad as to count an act of treason, but this is one of the finest examinations of British royalty back when it was a survival business.

4. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn put on an acting clinic in this aristocratic drama centred around the tense marriage between King Henry II and his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor. Verbal quips and pointed barbs fly as the royal family gathers for Christmas in 1183. Henry is desperate to keep his grip on power, while Eleanor looks to unite his sons – including Anthony Hopkins in his coming-out role – against him. And you thought the Roys were dysfunctional.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Spinning an ageing patriarch’s mental decline into absurdist comedy might not go over terribly well today, but this somewhat satirical account of King George III’s latter-day deterioration – possibly from the liver disease porphyria – also works well as a metaphor for the craziness of governance in general. Nigel Hawthorne, who also starred in the stage production, is excellent as the ailing king, as is Helen Mirren as his exasperated wife, Queen Charlotte.    

  • Film
  • Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

The life of Princess Diana has been churned over endlessly since the tragedy that snuffed it out nearly three decades ago. But even those fully exhausted by the constant relitigation will be mesmerised by Kristen Stewart’s embodiment of the original royal disruptor. It’s a moody, almost atmospheric biopic, encapsulating the tumult of Diana’s experience of marrying into the monarchy by depicting only a few days in her life, circa Christmas 1991. Even those within Diana’s inner circle praised Stewart’s performance – and it deservedly earned her an inaugural Oscar nomination.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Many fine actors have donned the doublet and codpiece of Henry VIII down the years: Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, Eric Bana and Damian Lewis among them. Heck, even Sid James has had a crack at the big man in Carry On Henry, a film that has appeared on no history syllabuses ever. But Robert Shaw’s larger-than-life monarch gets to work with Robert Bolt’s rich script (adapted from his own play) in this meaty account of Lord Chancellor Thomas More’s (Paul Scofield) life and death as a man of conscience who dared to cross the King of England. If you loved Wolf Hall – the book or TV series – track down this look at England’s most bullish monarch.  

  • Film
  • Action and adventure
Henry V (1944)
Henry V (1944)

Leave it to Laurence Olivier to deliver the first truly grand Shakespeare adaptation to the screen. Blowing the Bard’s vision up to widescreen – in more ways than one – Olivier’s vision of the titular monarch’s battle against the French for control of Normandy is big, bold and patriotic, maintaining the spirit of the stage play while taking full advantage of what cinema was capable of at the time. Apologies to Kenneth Branagh’s later take, but this is still the definitive version.

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  • Film
  • Drama

A purer form of quintessential awards bait has yet to be devised in the last decade than this biopic of King George VI and his valiant quest to overcome a stutter before delivering his first wartime speech in 1939. It’s the kind of competently middlebrow stuff director Tom Hooper specialises in, and Academy voters naturally hoovered it all up to the tune of 12 nominations and four wins. That Best Picture award is hard to justify – competition included Black Swan, The Social Network and Inception – but it’s equally difficult to deny Colin Firth’s lead performance. It’s a role he could’ve sleepwalked through and still won an Oscar, but he instead imbues the fragile king with pathos, emotion and ultimately, well-earned triumph.  

  • Film
  • Action and adventure

A decade before Victoria and Abdul, Judi Dench portrayed Queen Victoria in yet another movie about the 19th century monarch and her relationship with one of her servants – in this case her Scottish horseman, played by comedian Billy Connolly. Produced by the BBC and initially intended for Masterpiece Theatre, it’s a far more refined and stately film than the one that came after it, but it’s perhaps even more purely enjoyable, thanks to Dench’s typically ace performance and Connolly’s unexpectedly excellent dramatic turn. 

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
The Young Victoria (2009)
The Young Victoria (2009)

The late Jean-Marc Vallee directed this period piece indeed focusing on the young Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) shortly after assuming the crown at age 18 and her tumultuous marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Even if you’re typically immune to these kinds of costume dramas, The Young Victoria is especially sumptuous. Beyond the visual element, though, Blunt carries the film, bringing a spiky authenticity to the role of a monarch coming into her own as a ruler. 

  • Film
  • Comedy

Director John Madden spun the somewhat unexpected success of 1997’s Mrs Brown into Oscar domination with this Elizabethan romance about the muse that shook William Shakespeare out of a years-long rut and led to the creation of Romeo and Juliet (and later, Twelfth Night). The monarchy is only tangentially involved, but it’s (who else?) Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I, which wins a spot on this list almost by default. 

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

A soap opera masquerading as a prestige period drama, The Other Boleyn Girl takes quite a few liberties with the love triangle that developed between King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johannson) and her sister, Anne (Natalie Portman). But that’s probably for the better, and with the big-name stars involved, that makes it at least a high-quality soap opera. Natalie Portman, in particular, truly shines as Anne, throwing off the weight of the Star Wars prequels to show an emotional depth she hadn’t displayed in years.

  • Film
  • Drama
Victoria and Abdul (2017)
Victoria and Abdul (2017)

On the lighter end of the Stephen Frears filmography, this ‘historical’ (ahem) drama about the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and an Indian attendant (Ali Fazal) exudes almost Nancy Meyers levels of levity, which some might argue amounts to a whitewashing of the era of the British Raj. That said, few actors are better at portraying royalty than Dench, whose stellar performance – and chemistry with Fazal – makes the unabashed crowd-pleasingness of the whole affair go down easier than it probably should.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

No one would classify King Ralph as a ‘great movie’ in the conventional sense of the term. But if you haven’t noticed, when it comes to depicting the monarchy on screen, silliness is in short supply. Once you get tired of all the staid costume dramas, consider this goofball comedy a palate cleanser. After a freak accident wipes out the entire Royal Family in one shot, the last living heir is discovered to be living in America: a down-on-his-luck lounge singer named Ralph Jones (John Goodman). As you might imagine, the humour is entirely of the schlub-out-of-water variety, but Goodman is exactly the schlub you want to keep those kinds of low-brow laughs coming for 90 minutes.

  • Film
  • Drama
A Royal Night Out (2015)
A Royal Night Out (2015)

A historical footnote stretched into a romcom fantasy, A Royal Night Out greatly embellishes the story of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret sneaking out of Buckingham Palace on VE Day to celebrate incognito with the commoners. In truth, the princesses simply went out for a few hours in a large group and returned home. Here, the monarchs in waiting break away from their security detail and pair up with a naval officer and an airman, allowing them to experience ‘the real London’ away from their royal perch. Still, this interpretation has a sugary flavour that’s slight but undeniably appealing.

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  • Film
  • Drama
W.E. (2012)
W.E. (2012)

Yes, it was panned by critics. Yes, it was rejected by audiences. No, Madonna should never be allowed behind a film camera ever again. But similar to King Ralph, if the prestige period pieces and serious-minded historical dramas that make up the rest of this list are starting to weigh on you, why not unwind with a light, ridiculous romance about one modern woman’s obsession with the House of Windsor – specifically, King Edward VIII’s relationship with American Wallis Simpson. The movie jumps back and forth, Julie and Julia style, between Abbie Cornish as said hopeless romantic living in late ‘90s New York and the story of Edward sacrificing his throne to marry his betrothed. Yes, you’ll end up paying more attention to the Oscar-nominated costume design than anything else, but there are worse ways to absorb a bit of history…emphasis on ‘bit.’

  • Film
  • Comedy

From the American perspective, the British monarchy is a fairly silly institution – and many Brits would probably say the same about America as a whole. Leave it to the trio of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker to spoof the whole lot of them. Upon visiting the United States, the Queen is marked for assassination – via hypnotised baseball player Reggie Jackson – and the only man who can stop it is bumbling detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). How does he end up mounting Her Majesty in the photo above? If you’ve never seen it, we certainly won’t spoil it.   

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