Being one of the most celebrated monarchies around the world, their lives captivating the public, the British royal family have often been the subject of television series, films and documentaries. With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, online viewing platforms quickly generated a new category to gather together all they could about her and other royals. On Netflix, The Crown (2016–) is back in the top ten, while on Shahid VIP Stephen Frears’s The Queen (2006) is one on the most watched list.
Other films that can be had include Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Freya Wilson as Princess Elizabeth. It tells the story of King George VI’s ascension to the throne just three years before the outbreak of World War II. Another film that features the early life of the Queen (played by Sarah Gadon) is Julian Jarrold’s A Royal Night Out (2015), which follows Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), both leaving Buckingham Palace the night of 8 May 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II, with Rupert Everett and Emily Watson playing King George VI and the Queen Mother.
But perhaps Hellen Mirren’s remarkably grounded Elizabeth in Frears’s The Queen is the most convincing ever, capturing the Queen’s physical and mental presence like no other performance.
The Queen opens with Elizabeth II preparing to meet the newly elected Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair – brilliantly played by Michael Sheen – who himself is preparing for the same meeting, looking perplexed as he pays attention to instructions on meeting the Queen. A few months after Blair’s appointment, the tragic death of Princess Diana in the notorious car accident with her companion Dodi Fayed in Paris occurs, becoming a problem for both queen and prime minister. By now Diana is no longer royal but still the mother of the future king’s two sons.
Elizabeth takes a distant, cold approach to Diana’s death, though the script uses tiny details to show how much the news affects her. She spends the night of the accident writing furiously in her diary (which object, hitherto attested but not seen, is the dream of historians everywhere), for example. She is seen glancing at William and Harry as Charles imparts the news.
Responding to the public mood, for his part, Blair calls Diana “the people’s Princess” and, in private conversations with the Queen, expresses concern about the future of the monarchy. Though in shock over the public’s response according to her secretary, the Queen continues with daily routine, driving with her beloved dogs. At one point she is seen storming out after a phone call with Blair, driving till her car is trapped in a stream before she breaks down. A majestic stag wandering by catches her eye before she is hurt by the gunshots of the hunters pursuing it.
Humanising the Queen by spotlighting personal traits and depicting emotional conflict, the film also shows her insistence on protocol as she refuses to make any public statement about Diana’s death until she is eventually forced to give a speech and permit a ceremonial royal funeral. Mirren won an Oscar and BAFTA for her role, and the film won many other awards as well.
Another two actresses who played the role of the Queen, though less remarkably than Mirren, are Claire Foy and Olivia Colman as the young and old Elizabeth in The Crown, created by Peter Morgan. Foy played the role in the first two seasons, portraying Elizabeth as a young princess and how her father acceded to the throne after the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII in 1963, leaving Elizabeth as the presumed heir. After the death of her father in 1952 she becomes Queen at the age of 25. Foy portrays the young queen struggling to master her role and deal with the consequences of her ascension for her marriage very well.
In one remarkable scene, Queen Elizabeth is seen expressing the desire to employ a private tutor to teach her, blaming her mother for home educating her. Her love for dogs is also depicted. Colman shows a confident, mature monarch, notably in her relationship with the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (magnificently played by American actress Gillian Anderson). It is still to be seen how Imelda Staunton will play the elderly Queen in season five.
Queen Elizabeth was played again recently by actress Stella Gonet in Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021), which focuses on the late Princess Diana – played by Kristen Stewart – during a tense Christmas holiday spent with the royal family at Sandringhan estate in Norfolk, which includes scenes of self-harm and bulimia before Diana decides to end her unhappy marriage to Charles.
Queen Elizabeth herself made a cameo in Happy and Glorious, a short film with Daniel Craig as James Bond screened as part of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony in London.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.