Screen Queen: Elizabeth II on film
For much of the Queen’s reign it would have been unthinkable to portray her private life on screen, but in recent years it’s been depicted several times. Film historian Mark Glancy discusses three films that strike a balance between revelation and reverence
The King’s Speech (2010)
Directed by Tom Hooper. With Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce
Princess Elizabeth appears in only a few scenes of The King’s Speech, which is set between 1925 and 1939, but the film portrays events that framed her life. Certainly, one of the key developments in her lifetime has been the growth of mass media and the demands that placed on the monarchy.
In a scene set in 1934, George V completes his Christmas Day radio broadcast, then vents his resentment to his son Albert (the future George VI). “In the past, all a king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse,” he fumes, “but now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them.” The monarchy had been reduced, as the king puts it, “to those lowest, basest of creatures… we’ve become actors”.
Prince Albert’s stammer makes it difficult for him to speak in public, thus rendering him an inadequate actor and a potentially ineffective monarch. The film concerns his attempts to overcome this problem through a programme of unconventional treatment by an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. The treatment – shouting out of windows, chanting, singing, swearing and jumping up and down – seems as much a course of modernisation as it does speech therapy.
Logue continually urges him to loosen up and express his feelings, and insists on referring to his patient not as “Your Royal Highness” but by his family nickname, Bertie. He becomes a father figure – and one better equipped than George V to prepare Albert for the modern age.
Set against the unfolding abdication crisis, Albert’s earnest striving to improve himself is in marked contrast to his elder brother’s callous disregard for his duty. The film builds towards Albert’s coronation in 1937 (the first to be filmed) and his radio address on the first day of war in 1939.
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In these climactic moments he fulfils his duties admirably. But there xs also a moment of more poignant drama after the accession. When the new king greets his daughters, the young princesses curtsy, and this formality, together with the king’s awareness that the 10-year-old Elizabeth is now first in line to the throne, registers as an overwhelming burden rather than a triumph.
But is it accurate?
It is unlikely that Logue’s treatment included swearing and other indignities. The speech delivered on the first day of the war was not as pivotal as it is portrayed here. Also not quite right is the portrayal of Winston Churchill as a friend and confidant – at this point he and the royals were divided on issues such as the abdication and appeasement. Nevertheless, The King’s Speech is a fine royal drama with excellent central performances.
A Royal Night Out (2015)
Directed by Julian Jarrold. With Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett, Jack Reynor
In the final scene of The King’s Speech, George VI is joined by his family on the palace balcony, where they wave to the cheering crowds below. In fact, there was no celebration of this kind on the first day of war. It was a sombre day – the first of many for nearly six years.
It was not until VE Day, on 8 May 1945, that cheering crowds assembled outside the palace and the royal family came out to greet them. This is where A Royal Night Out begins.
On this day of celebration, the teenaged princesses plead with their parents to allow them to join the public party beyond the gates. Reluctantly, the king and queen give their permission – but only for their daughters to attend a formal party at the Ritz, chaperoned by two army officers.
An adventurous Princess Margaret breaks free of the officers, and the more responsible Princess Elizabeth follows her. With the help of Jack, an AWOL airman, Elizabeth pursues her sister through the mayhem of Trafalgar Square and the sleaze of Soho all the way to a party at Chelsea Barracks, ultimately finding her sister and returning to the palace at dawn.
Told as a romantic comedy, Elizabeth sparring with the initially reluctant Jack, the film finds laughs in Elizabeth’s seeming inability to cope outside the palace gates. Yet the film also acknowledges her wartime service as a driver and mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, not least when she confidently drives Jack back to his barracks at breakneck speed. The camera looks away when they finally kiss goodbye, a moment typical of the careful tone of the film.
But is it accurate?
Princess Margaret was only 14 on VE Day. Though it’s true they went out incognito that night, they were with 16 friends and members of the royal household and got no further than Trafalgar Square.
They also returned to the palace by midnight, in time to join the king and queen as they stepped out on the balcony for a final time that night. The character of Jack is, of course, an invention – and an effective means of bringing a commoner’s perspective to this slight but charming film.
The Queen (2006)
Directed by Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, Sylvia Syms, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings
The death of Princess Diana on 31 August 1997 was a tragedy that highlighted the public’s expectations of the monarchy in the modern age. The royal family expected to grieve privately at Balmoral, but in the week between her death and her funeral there was an increasing clamour for public involvement in the family’s grief. “Show Us You Care,” one tabloid headline demanded.
The Queen tells the story of this remarkable week, emphasising the contrast between the family’s sense of traditional decorum and the modernising spirit of the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair. Whereas Blair can capture the public mood in a single phrase, paying tribute to Princess Diana as “the people’s princess”, the Queen initially sees no need to address or even acknowledge public feeling.
The film portrays this as a clash of generations. The royal family’s reserve is represented as stemming from the privations and austerity of the WW2, while the prime minister’s ease and informality is represented as typical of a post-1960s, media-saturated sensibility.
Remarkably, this clash is dramatised without taking sides. The Queen’s reserve initially seems remote but gradually is revealed to stem, at least in part, from her need to protect her grandsons. The prime minister, meanwhile, emerges as a somewhat superficial man who has not thought through his conflicting beliefs in tradition and modernisation. A sharp script and two fine performances ensure a riveting drama. Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is a figure just a little too eager to please, while Helen Mirren, in an Oscar-winning performance, captures a figure who has spent her entire life in the public eye and will remain in the public’s affections far longer than the younger prime minister.
But is it accurate?
The screenwriter Peter Morgan was surprised to find that Tony Blair, in his memoir written in 2010, recalled his meeting with the Queen using almost exactly the same dialogue that Morgan had written for the film. It is noteworthy, too, that Helen Mirren was invited to meet the Queen after the film’s release – a sign that the film caused no offence and seems to have been regarded as a generally authentic and sympathetic portrayal of one of the most difficult periods of the Queen’s reign.
Mark Glancy is professor of film history at Queen Mary University of London
This article appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen' Special Edition, republished in 2022