Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

There’s no two ways about it: Hollywood loves royalty. Be it through fiction or biopics, audiences will always flock to cinemas to escape into the worlds of kings and queens, and princes and princesses. The British royal family has centuries of stories for the film industry to dive into. However, creatives largely focus on repeatedly bringing the lives of several specific queens to the silver screen. There’s Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) in The Other Boleyn Girl, Lady Jane Grey (Helena Bonham Carter) in Lady Jane, and Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth I is a firm cinematic favourite, with Margot Robbie depicting her alongside the aforementioned Ronan, Cate Blanchett on award-winning form in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and 8 minutes of genius from Judi Dench won her an Oscar as the virgin queen in Shakespeare in Love. Dench won a BAFTA for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs Brown, and revisited the role twenty years later in Victoria & Abdul. At the opposite end of her reign, Emily Blunt dramatizes the first years of Queen Victoria’s rule in The Young Victoria, featuring a cameo from Princess Beatrice as a lady-in-waiting. Helena Bonham Carter tackles the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech, a role which Emily Watson takes on in A Royal Night Out, also featuring Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth and Bel Powley as Princess Margaret on V. E. Day in 1945. Kristen Stewart takes on Princess Diana in Spencer (out in November 2021), in a beautiful performance for which she will surely reign supreme over the coming awards season.

Further royal films based on true stories are seen in Anna and the King, a romance between a British school teacher (Jodie Foster) and the King of Siam (Chow Yun-Fat) in the 1860s, and 1957’s The King and I where a widow (Deborah Kerr) accepts a position as the live-in governess to the King of Siam (Yul Brynner). Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic interpretation of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in Cleopatra definitely merits a mention, as does Greta Garbo’s rendition of Queen Christina of Sweden in Queen Christina (also portrayed by Malin Buska in The Girl King). Q’orianka Kilcher plays the eponymous Princess Ka’iulani in the true story of the Hawaiian princess’ attempts to hold the island’s independence against the threat of American colonization, and Rosamund Pike brings Ruth Williams – a white woman who falls in love with King Seretse Khama of Botswana – to life in Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.

Films about twentieth century royalty can be a little hit-and-miss. For every award-winning box office hit there is a biopic booed at Cannes that makes the cast wish their agents could expunge any memory of their association with it. Close friends Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman released disastrous biopics of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly, respectively, within a year of one another with Diana and Grace of Monaco (honestly – they’re deeply terrible films). Netflix recently procured the recording of the stage musical Diana: The Musical (watching it is an experience and a half), and the “fab four” both received questionable television movie biopics in the run up to their weddings with 2011’s William & Kate and 2018’s Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance.

And then there’s fictional royalty. Audrey Hepburn sets the bar for the genre in the 1953 romance Roman Holiday as a princess escaping her guardians for an adventure in Rome. The early ‘00s loved a teen royal romance, with Julia Stiles falling for the (fictional) heir to the Danish throne whilst at college in The Prince and Me (ignore the sequel, it isn’t in the same league) and Anne Hathaway launched her career as invisible, awkward teen Mia Thermopolis, who finds out she is heir to the throne of Genovia in The Princess Diaries. It has everything – a make-over scene! Julie Andrews! the first few steps of a wango! a foot-popping kiss! a decent sequel!. Perfection. Netflix took Genovia and attempted to upgrade it into an entire universe of small European countries with their recent inter-connected Christmas film series’ of The Princess Switch and The Christmas Prince. They are both eye-rollingly bonkers, but should be queued up for viewing in December regardless. 

While the focus here is on film, it would be remiss not to briefly highlight a number of exceptional television shows that bring female royalty to light. The likes of Victoria, The Crown, Wolf Hall, and The Great are all brilliant shows that really deserve a watch if you fancy a longer-form way to get your royalty fix.

Our top five films for this month feature an iconic musical animation, and four biopics spanning Denmark, France and Britain, and boasting two Oscar winning performances for Best Actress. Without further ado…

Anastasia

(1997, Dir.: Don Bluth & Gary Goldman)

We haven’t mentioned any animated Disney films thus far because it just seemed way too obvious in a post about royal women. While Anastasia isn’t actually a Disney film (it was the first animated feature to be made by Twentieth Century Fox with the aim of directly competing with the Disney animation studios, before the movie – and later the entire studio – was bought by Disney) it certainly has the look and feel of the Disney princess animations that we’re all familiar with. In this retelling of the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of the last Russian Czar, Nicholas II, the film follows eighteen-year old amnesiac Anastasia “Anya” Romanov (voiced by Meg Ryan) as she joins two con men to reunite with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Angela Lansbury). The history is a little muddy given the artistic licence taken, but the songs are beautiful and it’s a wonderful film nonetheless.

Anastasia is available to stream on Disney+

A Royal Affair

(2012, Dir.: Nikolaj Arcel)

In the late eighteenth century, British Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) is married off to the mad King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), but secretly falls in love with the Enlightenment physician Dr Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Their affair forms the backdrop for the pair to pass sweeping reforms through Denmark, but it proves to be a deadly mistake as political enemies use the knowledge of the relationship to their advantage. Swedish actress Vikander had to learn Danish for her role in the critically-acclaimed film.

A Royal Affair is available rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube and rent on Sky Store.

Marie Antoinette

(2006, Dir.: Sofia Coppola)

From young bride to eventual queen of France, the life of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is retold for a teen audience by Sofia Coppola. Filmed in part at the Palace of Versailles, and with hundreds of shoes specially made by Manolo Blahnik and pastries and cakes by Ladurée, this is not your average biopic. Writer and director Coppola chose to give light to the young queen, basing her film on a biography by Antonia Fraser and highlighting Antoinette as a respected and loving daughter, wife, and mother, thus sitting in opposition to previous depictions of the queen as vapid and vain.

Marie Antoinette is available rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.

The Favourite

(2018, Dir.: Yorgos Lanthimos)

“Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun”… and good lord do the ladies have fun here. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos lends his unique and creative vision to the eighteenth century English royal court, where the relationship between the frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her trusted companion Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is thrown into disarray by the arrival of new servant Abigail (Emma Stone). The spectacular film passes the ‘reverse Bechdel test’, as the only time named male characters have a conversation with no women present is when they talk about the duck, Horatio. It is a triumph and deeply funny, and led to the most excellent and heart-warming Oscars acceptance speech from Olivia Colman.

The Favourite is available rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.

The Queen

(2006, Dir.: Stephen Frears)

No discussion about female royalty on screen is complete without The Queen. Helen Mirren is on Oscar-winning form portraying Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. Mirren was praised by Queen Elizabeth for her performance and invited to Buckingham Palace, but she unfortunately had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Eleven years later, Mirren reprised the role in the Broadway play, The Audience, also winning a Tony award.

The Queen is available to stream on Netflix and Sky Cinema


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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