Actors and actresses apply their craft to personify historical figures with a sense of humanity, rather than portray otherwise textbook characters. Sometimes that means lifting snippets from the history books and exaggerating them on the big screen. Other times it could mean twisting history and completely making up personality traits or quirks of famous kings and queens for a laugh or a cry.
The best TV and movie portrayals of kings and queens throughout history come in many different shapes and sizes, from classical Shakespearean interpretations to more modern translations, biographies, and fictionalizations.
On-screen legend Helen Mirren won an Oscar (and just about every other acting prize) for embodying Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 film The Queen. The Queen takes place shortly after Princess Diana’s death in 1997 as Elizabeth II and the rest of the royal family decide how to deal with the fallout. The movie also stars James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair.
Kenneth Branagh consistently makes a name for himself as the man who enjoys directing and acting in adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare, and it’s no secret that Shakespeare had a penchant for taking the microscope to troubled kings and queens.
Macbeth, Hamlet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Othello are all on Branagh’s resume. That said, it’s the actor’s directorial debut of Henry V that lands him a spot on this list. The 1989 film sees Branagh in the lead role as King Henry V during the Hundred Years War.
Elizabeth & Elizabeth: The Golden Age
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I was so tumultuous and impressive that this particular telling took two films and nearly 10 years to bring to life. Cate Blanchett portrayed Queen Elizabeth during the beginning of her time as queen in the 1998 film aptly titled Elizabeth, and reprised the role to examine the queen’s later years in the 2007 sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Blanchett scored Academy Award nominations for both performances.
The King’s Speech
A more modern but no less compelling performance of royalty during troubled times is presented by Colin Firth in 2010's Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Firth plays a stuttering George VI who, through a sudden ascension to the throne in the late 1930s, becomes king. The King’s Speech focuses on King George attempting to overcome his stammer to deliver the now-iconic speech broadcast to Britain in 1939.
The Favourite is another acclaimed movie focused on English royalty (noticing a trend here?). The 2018 movie’s plot follows actress Olivia Colman's Oscar-winning portrayal of a frail Queen Anne and the two women—Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and her cousin Abigail Masham (played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone)—who vied for her attention during the late 18the century.
Writer Peter Morgan is responsible for the above-listed movie The Queen, so it’s only fitting that another work from Morgan continues building on the foundation established by that film. The Crown, a historical drama focusing on both the earlier and later years of Queen Elizabeth II, has seen two seasons since its first airing in 2016. Actress Claire Foy received much acclaim for her performance. In keeping with the series' pedigree, the role of Queen Elizabeth in season three will shift to yet another person mentioned on this list: Olivia Colman.
Helen Mirren? Check. Queen Elizabeth? Check. Before The Queen and The Crown, there was the 2006 two-part mini-series “Elizabeth I.” The mini-series focuses on Mirren’s older Queen Elizabeth I as she navigates public and private life. Can’t get enough Elizabeth I on television? Have no fear, because a 2017 three-episode mini-series starring Lily Cole showcases dramatic moments from a younger Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
Portrayals of kings and queens will never get old
Kings and queens around the world today may not be as influential or prominent as they were in previous centuries, but that doesn’t mean people’s fascination with their lives will wane as the years go by. Modern monarchs and royal figures are bound to get their day on the screen — whether big or small — and kings and queens from the history books will continue to have their lives interpreted, dramatized, satirized, and fictionalized as long as movies and television exist. Which royal figures would you like to see make it to the big screen, and which movies about your favorite kings and queens didn’t make the list?