Royal Weddings and British Royalty in Film

Unless you're living in a cave so deep that no newspaper or electronic media can penetrate, you are more than aware of the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey. Judging by all the hype on television and cable, one would think that there is as much interest in the royal wedding here as there is in Great Britain. This Friday all three networks, as well as cable news systems, will have their top hosts and reporters broadcasting from London. All will breathlessly report on who is among the 1900 guests, what they are wearing, and, of course, recapitulations of how William met Kate, and so forth, and so forth, and so on and on and on. With all the adulation spewing forth from the media one would scarcely realize that our ancestors risked and pledged their "lives . . . fortunes, and . . . sacred honor" to break away from ole King George III.

Whether or not you get up early to watch the nuptials, this might be a good time to revisit some of the movies featuring British royalty. There are lots of them, going way back to the old Charles Laughton film The Private Life of Henry VIII, easily accessible on Netflix or at your public library. However, although mentioning a few others later, I want to focus on the two that deal with the monarchy in the 20th and 21st centuries, The Queen and The King's Speech, each of which was well received in this country. In 2006 The Queen raked in almost $56½ million in the U.S., and just a little under $123 worldwide. Topping that, The King's Speech last year took in almost $138 million in the U.S. alone. And honors aplenty were heaped upon them, Helen Mirren winning Best Actress Oscar for portraying Queen Elizabeth II, and Colin Firth Best Actor for King George VI in The King's Speech. The film also beat out the other biopic for Best Film (as well as Best Director), this one about an American, The Social Network—even in our Republic the royals trump commoners, at least on the big screen.

In The Queen, Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen are outstanding as Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair respectively. The royals should be eternally grateful that the head of the party having the least respect for the monarchy, the Socialists, was headed by a man who came to admire his sovereign so much that his advice might possibly have saved the royals from themselves. The film shows vividly how isolated the Queen and her family were when they made no announcement expressing grief over the sudden death of Princess Diana in the Paris car accident. At first the Queen resists Blair's urgent advice, but slowly as she realizes the depth of the people's grief over the death of "the People's Princess," she comes around. The scene in which she surveys the vast array of flower bouquets left by the grieving public outside the palace gates is pivotal. Reading some of the notes, she understands and accepts the advice of her Prime Minister to offer a response. A good picture of a monarch during a week of crisis.

In The King's Speech, Colin Firth, Helen Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush are superb as, respectively, Prince Albert (the Duke of York), his wife Elizabeth, and speech therapist Lionel Logue. You do not have to be an Anglophile to enjoy this story of a man overcoming his speech handicap with the aid of a loving wife and an unorthodox therapist. Normally the story of a stammerer overcoming such a handicap would be just a personal one, but this one takes on historical significance because the stammerer, against his wishes, became King George VI when his older brother Edward renounced the throne to marry a three times divorcée. The times were grim, not only because of the worldwide Depression, but because it was becoming more evident with each passing day that the nation would be engulfed in a war against Hitler's Germany. Thus the people needed a calm leader with a commanding voice that would instill hope and confidence in their future. It does not get any better than this film, director Tom Hooper' historical drama being so richly infused with personal details. (And yet the film is apparently poor history, omitting such details as Edward's admiration of Hitler, and even Albert's initial sympathy for the dictator before he became king. For more information on this, see "The Royal Mess" in The New Republic.)

Before closing I should at least mention some other films centering on British royalty. The 19th century is known largely as the Victorian Era, so there is the opulent Young Victoria depicting the young Queen ascending the throne and trying to find her bearings amidst a crowd of those who would use her for their own ends. Her interest in, and finally marriage to, the German Prince Albert, and his concern for the needy, is well told. Unfortunately, his early death left her almost incapacitated by her bereavement, and it is the aftermath of this tragedy that Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown chronicles so well. Judi Dench is magnificent as the widowed Queen Victoria, who withdraws completely from public affairs after Prince Albert's death. Billy Connolly portrays John Brown, her devoted Scottish servant whose tender solicitations gradually bring her back to life, even though her uncomprehending family and much of the public are scandalized by their relationship.