Category: British royalty

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

Spencer (2021)

Kristen Stewart channels the People’s Princess in Spencer

Director: Pablo Larrain

Cast: Kristen Stewart (Diana, Princess of Wales), Timothy Spall (Major Alistair Gregory), Jack Farthing (Prince Charles), Sean Harris (Chef Darren McGrady), Sally Hawkins (Maggie), Jack Nielsen (Prince William), Freddie Spry (Prince Harry), Stella Gonet (Queen Elizabeth II), Amy Manson (Anne Boleyn)

There is no more famous fairy-tale-gone-wrong in history than Prince Charles and Diana. It’s been explored in countless books, memoirs and films. It’s the meat of Netflix’s The Crown. Interest in it has been rekindled again after Prince Harry’s royal resignation. It’s a fable (also what this film claims to be, based, it claims, on “a true tragedy”) that will only become more of a legend. At its centre is Diana, a figure idealised and enshrined by a tragic early death, who had all the warmth, lovability and public humanity the more reserved Charles lacked. Diana’s romanticism has always helped her be remembered as the hero of this tragedy, with Charles the villain. You’ll see no difference in opinion here. Spencer is a fantastia on Diana that feels like it has been squeezed out of the pages of a host of sentimental pro-Diana memoirs from the likes of Paul Burrell.

Set over a three-day Christmas holiday at Sandringham, around 1991, the film follows a disastrous holiday of psychological depression, despair and isolated crisis for Diana (Kristen Stewart) as her marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing) finally, irretrievably, collapses. Over those days, Diana hides in her room, throws up meals, is treated with stony silence from the Royal family and quietly bullied by Sandringham equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). Her only friends are besotted loyal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and avuncular chef Darren (Sean Harris) and her only moments of happiness are with her two young sons, giving her the only taste she has of a normal life.

If there is one thing Spencer does very well, it is giving an insight into how overbearing and crushing depression can be. Diana is erratic, frequently tearful, prone to fantasies and suffers through prolonged periods of self-loathing, exhibiting as chronic vomiting after every meal and possible self-harm. Stress makes her sharp and waspish with those she doesn’t trust and almost overwhelmingly needy with those she does. Larrain visualises this with muted pallets and drained colours, showing this world in the same oppressive, depressing light as Diana see it, while Johnny Greenwood’s excellent score makes superb use of a series of unsettling chords to constantly put us ill at ease.

The downside is, the film so completely consumes the Diana-side only, that it feels like being crushed to death by a collapsing mountain of “People’s Princess” bargain-bucket memoirs. Diana is always the victim and never at fault. The film takes an idealised view of her as “one-of-us” chewed up and spat out by an uncaring system, with the Windsors as monstrous gargoyles. (A bit rich considering she’s the daughter of an Earl). Charles is cast firmly as a cold-fish and villain, heartlessly openly carrying on an affair, gifting the same pearls to Camilla as he does Diana. Where Diana is warm and playful with the children, Charles is cold and authoritative, angrily tutting at William’s failures at shooting. Where she has a natural touch with people, Charles is cold and dictatorial.

It is, basically a one-sided vision of this story. That would be fine if the film had suggested that what we are seeing is Diana’s depression-filtered perception of the world – her perception told her surroundings were like, cold, cruel and oppressive. But there is no suggestion that we are seeing this, no extenuating circumstances or slight doubts raised to suggest that there may be different interpretations of these events or that there were two people in this marriage, both in different ways at fault.

It’s something The Crown has carefully – and skilfully – done, by demonstrating these are two people never in love with each other in the first place, with no common interests and outlooks. Spencer could have delved more into helping us understand how this situation came about. It isn’t interested in doing this: as far as the film is concerned, Charles is an unfaithful bastard (Jack Farthing’s channels his Warleggen from Poldark, playing every scene with a razor-blade growl) intent on gaslighting his wife. It doesn’t seem fair.

And lord knows, I’m sorry for Diana who should never have agreed to marry a man she was unsuited to and in love with another woman from day one. There is a film to be made (eventually) about Diana which explores the fascinating puzzles in her identity. The woman who loathed the press but also was an expert manipulator of public opinion, who yearned for privacy but loved public and private devotion. Spencer doesn’t explore any of this, instead presenting a simplified, romantic vision of a woman exactly as you would expect to see from a cliched TV movie. At heart, in fact, that’s what Spencer is – a slushy made-for-TV-movie shot like an arthouse film.

That’s perhaps why its full of such ridiculous flourishes. We’ve obviously talked about the stone-cold Royals. We get cod psychology – “Where the fuck am I?” are Diana’s opening lines, hammering home for us (in case we are about to miss it) that her tortured psychology is the heart of the film. As the Royal Court arrives at Sandringham, their cars drive over the dead body of a pheasant – symbolism you see! Diana reads a book about Anne Boleyn – and sure enough she is soon literally communing with a ghost of the beheaded Queen, both of them claiming themselves as victims of a cruel king who loved someone else. Everything in the film is heavy-handed and designed to push Diana as the faultless victim and the Royals as scowling monsters.

Kirsten Stewart gives a decent impersonation of Diana – vocally she’s spot-on – but for me she struggles in the shadow of Emma Corrin’s extraordinarily transformative work in The Crown – a show that also gained a lot more emotional insight into this story than the film even begins to achieve. It’s shot with a real arthouse style, but at heart it’s a silly and shallow film that never tries to understand either Diana’s inner life or how her marriage became what it was.

Cromwell (1970)

Cromwell image
Richard Harris let loose the revolution in Cromwell

Director: Ken Hughes

Cast: Richard Harris (Oliver Cromwell), Alec Guinness (King Charles I), Robert Morley (Earl of Manchester), Dorothy Tutin (Queen Henrietta Maria), Frank Finlay (John Carter), Timothy Dalton (Prince Rupert), Patrick Wymark (Earl of Strafford), Patrick Magee (Hugh Peters), Nigel Stock (Sir Edward Hyde), Charles Gray (Earl of Essex), Michael Jayston (Henry Ireton), Douglas Wilmer (Sir Thomas Fairfax), Geoffrey Keen (John Pym), Stratford Johns (President Bradshaw)

How much does history actually matter when you watch a historical film? We all know we aren’t watching a documentary don’t we? It’s worth bearing in mind when watching Cromwell a film which would probably be in the running for “least historically accurate film of all time”. But despite that, it’s entertaining and gets quite close to some of the spirit of the times – even if it changes most of the facts. It probably as well deserves notice for being one of the very few films to offer a sympathetic portrait of Oliver Cromwell – not a guy it’s easy to like.

It’s the 1640s, and England is a mess. Charles I (Alec Guinness) has been ruling the country directly, without involving Parliament, for over ten years. But now the money is gone and he needs Parliament to raise some more cash. Problem is, Parliament is more interested in pushing a defence of its own prerogatives rather than simply putting more money into the King’s pocket. Among the leaders of the Parliamentary campaign is Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), and he is not the man to take any false promises from the king. Before we know it, the country has tipped into civil war – and now it’s up to Cromwell to create a Parliamentarian army that is capable of defeating the King and bring democracy to the nation.

Ken Hughes film offers some plenty of scope and drama, even if is old-fashioned (even a little Victorian) in its Wrong-but-Wromantic Cavaliers and Right-but-Repulsive Roundheads (to mis-quote 1066 And All That). It’s a strange topic for a historical epic (it took years to get the funding) – but it looks fabulous and has a wonderful score that really embraces the religious music of the time.

What it gets right is the passion and the fire that people felt at the time for questions of politics and religion. The film frequently features heated debates (even if the dialogue is often more ticking boxes than inspired) that the actors invest with real force. Its view of events is of course truncated and at times simple (it is, after all, trying to cover around ten of the most tumultuous years in British history in about two hours), but it focuses on trying to get the spirit of things right.

A large part of this is Richard Harris’ firey performance in the lead role. There is, it has to be said, a cosmic irony in Cromwell, the least popular British leader in Irish history, winds up being played so sympathetically by one of the most famous Irish actors of all time. Sure, the real Cromwell would have hated being played by an Irishman and a Catholic (Cromwell was surprisingly inclusive at the time, but had no truck with either group). But then Cromwell would also have loved being portrayed as a mixture of George Washington and Cincinnatus (the Roman general who left his plough to assume supreme command when the nation needed him, only to retire again to obscurity). This Cromwell is bullheaded, but determined to do what’s best for the nation, with personal ambition not even a consideration. He’s the one true, selfless man in a revolution of violence.

In fact, Cromwell was sorely tempted by the eventual offer to be King (something he laughs off here). He also undoubtedly was touched heavily by ambition, while his attempt to turn the Protectorate into a hereditary office was a disaster that doomed the Republic (surely George Washington learned a few lessons from him). But, deep down, Cromwell was sincere – a guy who largely said, and did, what he meant. It’s that sense of morality that Harris gets very well here. And, while its easy to poke fun at those hoarse tirades Harris is frequently called on to deliver, this sort of intemperate ranting (laced with Biblical language and a strong sense of moral superiority) were pretty much central to Cromwell’s personality.

It makes for a very different hero, even if the film is determined to turn Cromwell into the only decent man in the Kingdom. Cromwell, in real life, never retreated from politics to return to his farm as he does in the latter part of the film (he actually spent this time on brutal campaign in Ireland, something the film mentions only vaguely in passing). But there is no doubt Cromwell would have believed he was the guy selected by providence to save the nation – and that idea the film channels very well. In fact, Cromwell gives you a pretty decent idea of what Cromwell might have been like – and a pretty accurate picture of who Cromwell wanted to be – even if the things it shows you only have a passing resemblance to what happened.

It’s a key directive throughout Ken Hughes’ film, which feels free to distort historical events willy-nilly (see more below). But there is a sort of truth in spirit, if not in fact – from the heated debate in Parliament, to the mixture of frantic panic and regimented order in the battles (one particularly good shot positions the camera under a charging horse, which makes a cavalry charge suddenly feel horrifyingly visceral). Sure it’s arranged into a much more simple black-and-white story, but it works.

A similar trick also works for its portrayal of Charles I. This is probably one of Guinness’ most over-looked performances. His Charles is a weak, indecisive man who confuses stubbornness and pride for moral strength. Softly spoken when calm, he collapses into heavily Scots accented rage when riled and his politeness is a only a shield for bitterness and vexation. He routinely shirks responsibility for his actions and spreads the blame around everyone but himself. Again, it might not all be accurate, but you can’t imagine this is far off from the actual King.

Historically though, so much of the film is wildly inaccurate. Many of these changes are done to increase the importance of Oliver Cromwell early in the Parliamentarian campaign. To scratch the surface: Cromwell – a minor figure until quite late into the war – was not one of the five members Charles marched to Parliament to arrest (neither was Henry Ireton). He certainly didn’t – and neither did anyone else – remain sitting when the troops arrived and set a motion in place protecting MPs. He never met the King before the war. Cromwell is later made C-in-C of the Parliamentarian army – an office actually given to Fairfax. The film’s depiction of the Battle of Naseby flips the numerical advantage exactly to favour Charles rather than Cromwell. Far from providing the key damning evidence at Charles’ trial, Hyde fled the country with Prince Charles.

But this is a fiction, rather than drama. Even if the facts it presents are largely nonsense, it gets a lovely sense of the divided loyalties and tensions that existed during this period. The performances are often quite broad – Robert Morley simpers and sneers as an opportunistic Manchester, Patrick Wymark growls and splutters as Strafford while Timothy Dalton goes way over the top as a foppish Prince Rupert – but some, such as Michael Jayston’s firebrand Ireton or Nigel Stock’s tortured Hyde (historical nonsense as his storyline is) are rather good.

And it’s hard not to like a film where the lead actor is going at it such great guns that you can actually hear his voice disappearing into a rasp. Cromwell doesn’t have much relation to the facts, but deep down it does seem to understand the man Cromwell wanted to be. And, on that level, it feels truthful and heartfelt – and that’s partly why it remains entertaining and why I remain rather fond of it.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissable baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Elizabeth the golden age
Cate Blanchett returns as Elizabeth I in the slightly underwhelming Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh), Abbie Cornish (Bess Throckmorton), Samantha Morton (Mary Queen of Scots), Jordi Molla (King Philip II), Susan Lynch (Annette Fleming), Rhys Ifans (Robert Reston), Eddie Redmayne (Anthony Babington), Tom Hollander (Amias Paulet), David Threlfall (John Dee), Steven Robertson (Sir Francis Throckmorton), Adam Godley (William Walsingham), Laurence Fox (Sir Christopher Hatton), William Houston (Guerae de Espes)

Its 1585 and the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) has seen England enter a Golden Age. But tensions are rising with the Spanish and their king Philip II (Jordi Molla). The Spanish plot to replace the protestant Elizabeth on the throne with the catholic Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), sending their agents (including the likes of Rhys Ifans and Eddie Redmayne) to England to ferment rebellion. Can Elizabeth’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) root out this potential rebellion? Or could this be a trap to lure England into a naval war with Spain and its chilling armada of ships?

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a late sequel to the more influential Elizabeth, which mixed in the ruthlessness of The Godfather, with a sprinkling of sex in a darkly tinged Elizabeth England which seemed to drip conspiracy (setting the tone for costume dramas for the next ten years at least). Compared to its original, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems a much more traditional piece of filmmaking. It’s luscious and handsomely filmed, with the darkness and oppression of the original replaced with golden hued lighting, sumptuous (Oscar-winning) costumes and some very impressive set-designs, all of which help to point up the glamour of the past in a way that seems much more similar to a 1970s epic than the more inventive work of the original.

It’s a part of the film’s idea of the country now enjoying the glory Elizabeth’s reign has bought, with the dark corridors replaced by the bright lights of peace and opulence. The film’s reimagining of Tudor history does still present some interesting perspectives, not least in the character of Elizabeth. Now firmly in middle-age – and committed to a life of celibate singledom – Cate Blanchett’s regally imperious Elizabeth is still emotionally vulnerable with a deep sense of longing in her. Unable to live the life of romantic freedom she could in her youth, she now lives an emotional life vicariously through her ladies in waiting, particularly Abbie Cornish’s sharp and knowing Bess Throckmorton.

This focuses on Elizabeth alternating between encouraging and discouraging (due to her own half-realised romantic longing) a romance between Bess and famed explorer Walter Raleigh. Played by Clive Owen at his most buccaneering (with an accent that playfully lies between Norfolk and New England, suggesting the American accent came from Raleigh), Raleigh bewitches the Queen with exciting tales of abroad – but with her unable to flirt with him fully as she wishes, Bess is encouraged to dance intimately with him among other romantic gestures. The most important thing throughout for Elizabeth is that it is she controls and dictates the relationship – and when the couple start to make their own decisions, it leads to disaster.

It’s all part of Michael Hirst’s (here sharing script writing duties with William Nicholson) imaginative reinvention of Tudor history (remixed into an exciting version of what could have happened). This also comes together very nicely in an interesting conspiracy thriller take on the Babington plot and the goals of the Spanish to use it to manipulate both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. The film is at its strongest when playing with historical expectations.

However, too often it plays into the sort of “Britain Triumphant” nonsense that made Michael Gove on release (and you imagine Laurence Fox today – here popping up as Christopher Hatton) thrilled. The British characters – Elizabeth, Raleigh, Walsingham – are brave, charismatic, ingenious and attractive. The villainous Spanish are thick-lipped, spittle flecked, bad-haired meanies with Philip II literally a sinister limping hunchback. No scene in Spain is complete without dark lighting, chanting monks, massive crucifixes and a general air of oppression. When ships sink, the camera doesn’t miss the chance to capture a crucifix sinking to the bottom of the briny. The Babington conspirators plot out of a dyers shop, where blood red dye drips all around them. The plot culminates in a “just missed her” point blank gun confrontation (the film’s most silly flourish). Subtle it ain’t.

And also it feels more Little Englander than its predecessor. Whereas the first film saw as much darkness and dirty dealing among the British as it did Europe, this film feels like a “Britain Stands Alone” against treacherous, lecherous, sanctimonious (or all three) Europeans. Sure the Armada was a terrific win for Britain – here with much of the credit reassigned to Raleigh who steers fire ships into the path of the Spanish ships (Drake is reimagined as a lumpen bureaucrat dazzled by Raleigh’s pizzazz) – but it owed as much (as even the Tudors themselves admitted) to the weather and luck as it did bravery and skill. Unlike the first film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems determined to define European and Catholic as suspiciously “other”. It makes for a less rewarding film.

And a less interesting one. For all its playing with psychology, this is a very much more traditional costume drama, celebrating Merrie Olde Englande where the original film challenged us to question our expectations. Kapur and Hirst settle for spectacle and style, over drama and truth. Blanchett is impressive as always – and the rest of the cast very sound – but this is a sequel that only lives as a counterpoint for the original.

The King's Speech (2010)

Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King’s Speech

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Michael Gambon (King George V), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Anthony Andrews (Stanley Baldwin), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson)

It can be very hard to imagine the fear and pressure of not being able to trust your own voice. In a world where communication is valued so highly, what terror can it bring if you can’t easily express the thoughts in your own head? It’s a fear perfectly captured in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Because in a constitutional monarchy, what purpose does the King have, but to be a voice for his people? And if the King can’t speak, how can he hope to fulfil his duty? The King’s Speech uses its empathy for those struggling with a condition many find easy to mock and belittle, to create an emotionally compelling and deeply moving story that is a triumph not of overcoming an affliction, but learning how it can be managed and lived with.

In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.

The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.

Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.

And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.

The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.

A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.

Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.

Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.

Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.

Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.

Elizabeth (1998)

Joseph Fiennes flirts with a regal Cate Blanchett in this landmark Tudor history flick Elizabeth

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Francis Walsingham), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Richard Attenborough (Lord William Cecil), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Kathy Burke (Mary I), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Vincent Cassel (Duke of Anjou), Eric Cantona (French Ambassador de Foix), Emily Mortimer (Kat Ashley), Kelly Macdonald (Isabel Knollys), John Gielgud (Pope Pius V), Daniel Craig (John Ballard), James Frain (Alvaro de la Quadra), Edward Hardwicke (Earl of Arundel), Jamie Foreman (Earl of Sussex), Terence Rigby (Bishop Gardiner)

Not many people would think of Elizabeth as being an influential film. But I would say the roots of all modern costume drama can be found in this British Tudor epic. Classic costume drama before had seen the focus on “thees and thous”, Greensleeves, lovely costumes, well-lit sets and a certain grandeur. Elizabeth re-set the table. Mixing The Godfather with Elizabeth R, Elizabeth turned costume drama into a world of dark schemes, political intrigue, violence and lashings of sex and passion. It would leave prestige Hollywood dramas of the 70s and 80s behind and turn costume drama into something far darker, grittier and sexual than ever before.

The film follows the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). The queen is young, naïve and passionate. She’s well educated and smart, but still impulsive and too much in thrall to her emotions. She’s far too open about her sex-filled love affair with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), new-made Earl of Leicester, and too inexperienced to heed the advice of either William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who is pushing her towards the middle-ground of European alliances, or Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who argues for Elizabeth to lead a strong nation, willing to take on its enemies. Conspiracies whirl around the court, as disaffected Catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plot to seize the crown and restore the “true religion”.

Elizabeth’s style is triumphant. Many of the scenes take place in dimly lit halls at court, and candlelit private chambers. The palace is seemingly made of nooks and crannies where conspirators and lovers can silently retreat and keep their intentions secret. The music – wonderfully composed by David Hirschfelder – is a mixture of urgent marches and murky sounding chords, which brings a watery effect to the soundtrack, as if every moment could twist into swamp-like traps of treachery. The film is briskly cut, frequently jump-cutting and putting together impressive montages of conspirators or events. 

The film starts with such a montage of protestants being burned: moving swiftly from a death warrant being stamped, to heads being brutally (and bloodily) shaved to an overhead shot of the cart carrying the martyrs to their deaths, culminating in their cries as the fires reach hold and finally overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s a sign straightaway that this will be very different from the traditional taste and decorum of a costume drama – and this film won’t flinch away from the grimness. Shekhar Kapur’s direction throughout is stylish, dynamic and uses editing and cinematic tricks to great effect (if at times with a little too much flash).

And the film is soaking in political intrigue – conspiracies and plots swell and unfold, with the film finally culminating in a clearly Godfather-esque purge of the Queen’s enemies. This is Tudor drama as Mafia flick, the lords of England little better than the heads of the five families, and Elizabeth the young heir they underestimate at their peril. It takes historical action and brings it definitely into a very modern feeling conspiracy thriller, using cinematic tricks and good editing to break away from the more staid period pieces of the 1970s into something much darker and atmospheric.

That also carries across into its exploration of sex, something that has got even more play in costume dramas since. It’s odd to think that the film was quite controversial at the time for showing Elizabeth and Dudley engaged in a passionate sexual affair, or for suggesting that the Queen “became a virgin” as part of piece of political showmanship. The film fronts and centres the young naivety of Elizabeth and her all-consuming fascination with Dudley – well played by Joseph Fiennes as a part romantic dreamer, part tragic weakling – and her slow realisation that there is no place for romance and passion in the world of being a queen.

Because the film is also a coming of age drama: how did Elizabeth become the Greatest Tudor Monarch? Cate Blanchett is inspired casting choice, dominating the film with a multi-faceted performance that sees Elizabeth change from an excited young girl into the distant authoritarian figure. Blanchett gets to play it all here, showing her impressive range, charting this changing personality as not always linear – so a scene of giddy romance can be followed by her sharpness when challenging the lords of England over matters of religion and then back to weakness. While you can argue the film undermines Elizabeth’s intelligence (particularly early on) what it does capture supremely well is her determination and her wilfulness. It also triumphantly turns her into a very human figure, Blanchett brilliantly showing a character forcefully – and consciously – reshaping herself to meet the demands of her office.

Around Blanchett, Kapur assembles possibly one of the most eclectic casts in history. Can you think of another film where you could see John Gielgud one scene and Eric Cantona the next? Richard Attenborough and Angus Deayton side-by-side? Fortunately, the core roles are played by assured and impressive performers. Eccleston makes for a wonderfully imperious, self-important Norfolk. Cassel goes gleefully over-the-top as the camp Anjou. Frain, Craig and others excel in early roles. The pick of the lot is a mesmeric performance by Rush as the sinister but loyal Walsingham, an eminence grise willing to work things in the background Elizabeth wants but cannot ask for, a wartime consigliere, several steps ahead of the rest and whose loyalty to Elizabeth is matched only by his ruthlessness.

Historically the film has only a passing resemblance to reality. Elizabeth’s political astuteness was sharper from the first than the film gives her credit for (although, as its aim is to stress how humanity must be sacrificed for power, there are artistic reasons for this). Bishop Gardiner, leader of the anti-Elizabeth church faction, had died during the reign of Mary I. Cecil is played as an unimaginative old man, when he was in fact in his thirties when Elizabeth came to the throne, and her most trusted and wisest advisor. Numerous events are telescoped and combined – the Ridolfi plot which (roughly) climaxes the film took place 14 years into Elizabeth’s rule, not within at most a year. The film ends with a series of historical captions, not a single one of which is actually true. Michael Hirst’s script plays fast and loose with history (and with the odd dodgy line along the way) but he’s got a flair for bringing out the drama.

But does it matter? After all, who really looks to films for their history lessons? What Elizabeth is trying to do is to turn history into cinema, and this it does to glorious effect. It also managed to change our idea of what a “history film” was. After Elizabeth, history dramas would turn increasingly into darker tales, tinged with sex and conspiracy. But this film remains one of the best, directed with real flair and style by Kapur and powered by a superb performance by Cate Blanchett. Elizabeth gets more or less everything (apart from the facts of course) stylishly right and tells English history with gripping and entertaining intensity.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are the feuding royals in The Lion in Winter

Director: Anthony Harvey

Cast: Peter O’Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Anthony Hopkins (Richard the Lionhard), John Castle (Prince Geoffrey), Nigel Terry (Prince John), Timothy Dalton (Philip II), Jane Merrow (Alais), Nigel Stock (Captain William Marshall)

James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter did solid but not spectacular business on Broadway. But when it came to film, it surfed a wave of popularity for stories about British history and became one of the most financially successful films of its year, winning three Oscars (including for Goldman). Even more than that, it went on to be West Wing President Jed Bartlett’s favourite movie of all time. I think we know which prize is the most treasured.

Christmas 1183 (including an ahistorical Christmas tree and gift wrapped presents and all) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole), king of England and huge chunks of France, wants nothing more than family around him to mark the occasion. Problem is, this is possibly the more dysfunctional family ever. His Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) has been under “home arrest” for ten years in her castle, and his children Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry) seem to take it in turns to conspire against their father, their allegiances shifting faster than even they can sometimes follow. For added complexity, Henry is living with his late eldest son’s intended Alais (Jane Merrow) as husband and wife and her half-brother the new King of France Philip II (Timothy Dalton) is joining the family for Christmas. Over one night, this family will fight, feud and change pacts and allegiances until hardly anyone knows where the games end and the hate begins.

Anthony Harvey’s film is a stately, often wordy, faithful reconstruction of Goldman’s script that gives front-and-centre to the often scintillating dialogue between the family members, that leans just the right side of ahistorical (sample line: “Hush dear, Mummy’s fighting”) but frequently allows it’s top-of-the-line cast to let rip on some glorious speeches and dialogue duets crammed with ideas, wordplay, character and wit. Harvey therefore basically decides to sit back as much as possible and allow the actors do the work, using a mixture of medium shots and close-ups to bring the focus as much as possible to the Broadway-style staging or into the actor’s faces. He also uses the strength of the performers to allow for a series of long takes as they burn through pages of Goldman’s dialogue. The fact that there is hardly an interesting shot in the film, and its visual language never matches it’s verbal fire is a shame, but a price the film thinks worth paying.

And it matters little when Harvey is able to work as well with actors as he does here. All the performers are at the top of their game. Katharine Hepburn (winning her fourth Oscar, in a tie with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) has the perfect level of acute intelligence and imperious arrogance for Eleanor. But Harvey encourages from her a softness at crucial moments, that in-between the barn-storming speeches and verbal putdowns, Hepburn finds moments of quiet sadness and loneliness – a sense that sometimes ten years of imprisonment means she has had enough of all this – that are some of her most affecting work on screen. She’s hilarious but deeply moving – and totally believable as one of the most powerful women of the middle ages. 

She also is matched perfectly with O’Toole. Playing a 50-year old King at 35, O’Toole brings all the fire and charisma of his personality to the part, in a film where he perfectly balances the larger-than-life gusto of Henry II with his own personal disappointments, guilt and sorrow. O’Toole had already triumphed once as the charismatically brilliant king in Becket (for which he was also Oscar nominated, as he was here), but this performance is even better. Not only is his facility with the dialogue faultless, he also utterly convinces as the sort of awe-inspiring figure who dominates every room he’s in not just with force of character but the acuity and sharpness of his intellect. This might be his finest screen performance – and the one where he was most cheated of the Oscar (losing to a highly active campaign, criticised at the time, from Cliff Robertson in Charly).

To fill the cast out around these pros at the top of their game, Harvey raided British theatre to pluck some promising gems from British Theatre, more or less all of them here in their film debut. Anthony Hopkins is marvellously proud, forceful but just a few beats behind most of the others as a Richard who says what he means and sticks to it. Timothy Dalton is his polar opposite (and equally brilliant) as a Philip II who never says what he means and manipulates with a playful ease everyone he meets. John Castle (an actor who never had the career he should have had) is smugly unlikeable and coldly superior as the unliked middle-brother Geoffrey, while Nigel Terry is a snivelling punching bag as two-faced coward John. Jane Merrow is heartfelt and earnest as Alais, the only unquestionably kind and good person in this bunch.

These characters rotate sides and allegiances over the course of one evening, raging at each other like a medieval Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The brilliance of the dialogue never stops entertaining – although towards the end the film loses a bit of energy (it probably peaks with Henry’s loud double bluff of dragging the family in the middle of the night to a wedding he has no intention of seeing performed), perhaps partly because the film itself never really comes to flight as something cinematic. This is despite the decision to downplay the glamour – costumes are simple and look lived in (the cast wore them for hours off set to make them look lived in) and sets are far from pristine. It perhaps contributes to the slightly mundane feel of the filmmaking.

But the tricks are all in the dialogue and perhaps the film works best with an interval and a chance to take stock. There are several marvellous scenes, even if the constant feuding and side changing does wear you out after a while. But it’s a treat for the acting. Hepburn and O’Toole are simply at the top of their game, and the rest of the cast more than keep up with them. With an excellently imposing score from John Barry (also Oscar-winning), it’s a shame the film itself is a little too flatly and uninspiringly filmed with a murky lack of visual interest, but there are more than enough qualities for you to issue a pardon.

The Queen (2006)

Helen Mirren reigns supreme as her Majesty in The Queen

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Roger Allam (Robin Janvin), Sylvia Syms (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport), Mark Bazeley (Alistair Campbell), Julian Firth (Jonathan Powell)

It’s easy to assume The Queen is a cozy piece of film-making, not least because writer Peter Morgan’s exploration of the Royal Family has become every one’s favourite costume drama viewing thanks to his series The Crown on Netflix. But that’s to forget the acute sense of the personal and the public Morgan has, and his ability to write himself into the minds of his participants. And he’s perfectly matched here with the wry eye of Stephen Frears. Together they create a film that uses a single moment of history to explore the nature of our institutions and the particular characters of the people that fill them.

The film follows the death and aftermath of Princess Diana, and especially the dramatic public reaction to the death that expressed itself both in unparalleled scenes of national public mourning and hostility to the Royal family. Both are things a lifetime of duty and service have failed to prepare Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) for – but are also things intrinsically understood by her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). As the public clamour for the Royals to join the public in an exhibition of public grief rises, it’s mixed with a furious demand for a royal ‘mea culpa’ for ruining the life of the “People’s Princess”. Could the Royal Family be finished?

Well of course it wasn’t, and perhaps it’s hard to understand for those who didn’t live through those crazy days of 1997. But there was never anything like it before – people wept in the streets as if they had lost a family member of their own. Princess Diana – a tireless campaigner for charities, who did a great deal to change public perceptions on AIDS among many other issues – was also a brilliant master of public opinion, far more attuned to the countries drift away from stiff-upper-lip reticence towards celebrity-worship sentimentality than the family she married into. As skilful a manipulator of the press, as she was a victim of their hounding, she’d made herself into someone larger than life. It’s the sort of modern cult of celebrity, that few others mastered – and certainly not in the Royal Family.

Diana hangs over the family in the film like a ghost, an embodiment of their sense that the country is drifting away from them. It’s a film where pace and speed are vital, Frears and Morgan brilliantly contrasting the rushing onslaught of events from the car crash to distraught, increasingly angry, crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace with the relatively sedate official response, which was effectively a private retreat to Scotland and say and do very little. The film has a brilliant sense of the momentum of those crazy days, and of the clash between an institution straitjacketed by tradition and a world where the public exhibition of emotion is de rigour.

What the film finds however is the value in both, and in doing so perhaps becomes one of the greatest adverts for the monarchy – or at the very least for Elizabeth II – you will ever see. A lot of this comes from Helen Mirren superb performance as the Queen. It’s a role Mirren performs with a combination of Sphinx-like genius and a genuine fragility under a veneer of exactitude. Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman whose sense of duty has led to a lifetime of living as a symbol, a profession that has demanded the avoidance of any sort of personal opinion what-so-ever (something Morgan leans on with his Alan Bennettish early scene, where the Queen chats with a maid about the recent General Election and regrets she never had the chance to tick a box for something). She’s a woman certain that she has performed her duty in the finest tradition of her family.

Her tragedy in the film is the bewildered sense of suddenly finding the country she thought she knew being completely different. Put simply, the destructive Diana, a difficult person privately but loved publically, is a woman she can’t understand – and a country that embraces her is one she struggles to understand as well. Mirren’s Queen has a sharply defined sense of her place and person, but finds herself questioning all that. While sharply refusing to be treated as fool, she has a distressed sense of suddenly being adrift in the world.

Morgan captures all this in a series of engaging “behind the scenes” moments, but his real trick is his sure touch with symbology. A magnificent stag on the grounds, being hunted by all and sundry, could easily have been a clumsy parallel with the Queen, but it’s delivered with real grace and serves as a true emotional catalyst for the Queen (twice!) as she finally begins to understand both her own situation, and the necessity for her to bend her own firm principles and tradition to meet the requirements of this new age.

It’s the main theme of the film, this conflict between tradition and modernism, but the film sees merit in both. Many of the formalities of court life are humoursly spoofed in their intricate pomposity, but the overblown sentimentalism and knee-jerk judgamentalism of the modern world are hardly much better. As Blair himself, the arch modernist, observes there will always be a place for a head of state who gives us a symbol to aspire to. Not least, because the burden of standing for things and being driven to play to the masses will eventually lead to the destruction of most political careers (the film mines a fair bit of material between the implicit comparison of Blair’s saint-like popularity in 1997 to the wreckage of his “Bliar” reputation in 2006).

Frear’s film is a gentle critique but also a sharp defence of the institution of the monarchy, as practiced by the Queen. It may pain her, but she will get on with it. Morgan’s script also suggests her quiet wisdom – the film’s coda has her suggesting that Diana, like all things popular today, will pass. 

The film is less sure footed elsewhere. It’s portrayal of New Labour at times leans a bit too heavily into public perception – Campbell (played by a bullying Mark Bazaely) as a brash blow-hard, Labour as being obsessed with spin and image, Cherie Blair as a judgemental Shrew. Other members of the Royal family sometimes bend into parody – by the time of the Crown, Peter Morgan was to find Prince Philip as a far more fascinating and richer character than he is here. But the performances are strong across the board, as if following their head of state in Mirren. Sheen’s re-creation of Blair is pitch perfect, and he also aptly understands the difficult balance in Blair between genuine decency and ambition. Roger Allam also provides a wonderfully dry cameo as the Queen’s old fashioned secretary, while Alex Jennings does a neat impersonation of a Charles desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing.

The Queen’s main interest though is showing that tradition and modernism can sit side-by-side – and that a leaning too far in either direction is harmful for all involved. It sprinkles in intriguing levels of criticism for Diana, but matches that with a respect for the Queen, that makes her real while keeping her a symbol. Helen Mirren’s performance deserved every price going, and the film itself rewards with each new viewing.

Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Margot Robbie as a particularly dense version of Elizabeth in misfire Mary, Queen of Scots

Director: Josie Rourke

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (Elizabeth I), Guy Pearce (William Cecil), David Tennant (John Knox), Jack Lowden (Lord Henry Darnley), Joe Alwyn (Lord Robert Dudley), Gemma Chan (Elizabeth Hardwick), James McArdle (Earl of Moray), Martin Compston (Earl of Bothwell), Ismael Cruz Cordova (David Rizzio), Brendan Coyle (Earl of Lennox), Ian Hart (Lord Maitland), Adrian Lester (Lord Randolph), Simon Russell Beale (Robert Beale)

Mary Queen of Scots posterThe history of the Tudors has been mined so often by film and theatre that there can hardly be any hidden stories left to tell, barely any twists that can be unveiled or reimaginings that haven’t already been imagined. Mary Queen of Scots certainly fails to find any new angles on its oh-so-familiar tale, and even its attempt to rework events and characters keeps banging its head on those damn, unchangeable real events that spoil the story it seems to want to tell.

And it’s a familiar story. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) returns to Scotland from France after the death of her husband. Naturally many people aren’t keen to see this Queen, not least her half-brother the Earl of Moray (James McArdle) who was running the country, and protestant firebrand anti-feminist John Knox (David Tennant). But Mary is plugged in, sharp and savvy and she’s going to rule the country her way – and also put forward her claim for the throne of England currently held by her cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). It seems all is set for Mary’s success – until fortune begins to turn with her marriage to drunken playboy Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden). Conspiracy, murder, exile and execution are on the cards.

Mary Queen of Scots is a mess. For starters, Beau Willmon’s script does the near impossible of turning one of the most electric periods of British history into something stodgy, dull and hard to follow. Perhaps wrapped up in his House of Cards background, a show where there is a never ending stream of betrayals, counter crosses and twists for twists’ sake, Mary Queen of Scots is the same. The film is a constant parade of betrayals in Scotland, as lords shift and move sides from scene to scene with such swiftness, such lack of explanation, such lack of exploration of character and motivation, that you end up not only confused by ceasing to care. Decent actors like James McArdle and Ian Hart struggle through with ciphers (Hart literally changes sides every single scene). Martin Compston is given a confused character design as Bothwell that makes Mary’s third husband a hero until he makes a left-field heel reversal and becomes a bullying rapist. What a mess.

It’s even worse in England, where poor Guy Pearce’s every scene is a never-ending stream of exposition and historical context. Every single scene in England at the court drags and claws itself into nothingness, simply a load of dry, dense, uninvolving dialogue with characters whom we are never given any real reason to invest in. Just as the Scottish lords are ciphers who do whatever the plot requires them to do, with no time invested in developing their characters, so it’s the case with the English lords. There are many, many, many people to keep on top of but virtually no characters to invest in.

Willmon’s script also falls wildly in love with Mary herself, desperate to turn her into some genius politician and master of realpolitik, who we are frequently told is playing the game of courtly politics with aplomb and genius. “She’s out-manoeuvred us” one character constantly bemoans. However, the problem Willman has is that he eventually has to deal with the fact that the real life Mary made hideous, disastrous, stupid decisions. And since those decisions are basically the building blocks of the story (who she marries, who she trusts, who dies, where she goes, who she abandons etc etc.), there is no way around them. You are left with a film that tells you all the time how smart your lead character is, while most of the things she does are foolish.

Not least the marriage to Lord Darnley. Jack Lowdon gives a very good performance as a feckless, arrogant weakling. But surely only the densest woman alive could fail to see that Darnley is a hideously inappropriate husband? The film gets round this by stressing his charm and, in one hilariously misjudged scene, his intense skill at cunnilingus as being the thing that pulls the wool over her eyes. (After this first soft focus bit of oral play, Mary bashfully asks Darnley if he would like some “satisfaction” as well. No that’s fine he sweetly says – she really should be suspicious by then.) The film tries to course-correct by having Mary realise literally five minutes into the marriage that she has made a terrible mistake. But she doesn’t learn from it, as the rest of her life is a series of disastrous decisions, promoting the wrong people, snubbing others, leaving her son (the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE COUNTRY) behind when she runs away… need I go on.

As well as trying to make Mary a genius, it also balances by trying to make Elizabeth an idiot. I swear there is not a single scene in this film where Elizabeth is not in tears about something. She shows no judgement whatsoever, struggles with her hormones, blindly follows the advice of her counsellors, spends half the movie making paper roses and stroking horses rather than running the kingdom. On top of which, this film which wants to make a point about the sexism women face dealing with a world of men, turns Elizabeth (the greatest queen England ever had) into a hormonal idiot, blindly led by men and obsessed with the idea of having children (even longingly trying to make her shadow appear pregnant) because, you know, deep down the ladies just be wanting babies. 

Now Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie do decent jobs with the versions of these people they play, even if none of this rings true. Josie Rourke does a decent job directing the film visually, with its Game of Thrones inspired look and feel (Edinburgh castle is turned into some sort of bizarre Dragonstone structure, half hewn out of a mountain). But its story is, to put it bluntly, really, really BORING. You are never given any reason to care about most of these characters, so the constant stream of betrayals and side shifting eventually becomes utterly unengaging. Every time you get near to thinking Mary is smart, she has to do a terribly dumb historically inspired real event, that actually makes her look even more stupid than she was. Mary Queen of Scots is a stodgy, dense, dull mess of a film that ends up being drier and less interesting than the sort of high-Hollywood epics from the 1970s it’s trying to update.