It has always amused people to produce performances centring on the lives of their rulers – our most famous entertainer, William Shakespeare, wrote ten plays dramatizing the life and exploits of British monarchs, though not in quite the same way as Peter Morgan (writer of many films about Kings and Queens, including The Other Boleyn Girl, King Ralph, The Queen, Henry VIII, The Crown and Bohemian Rhapsody). Some productions inspired by royal deeds and persons, like A Royal Night Out go straight for comedy and largely ignore any questions of accuracy or veracity – but more present themselves as revealing the secret inner lives and characters of famous figures. Do these portrayals serve to humanise or exotify their royal subjects?
The answer is both, always both.
Dramatize is the key word in most film and television portrayals of royal persons. Certain Lifetime films notwithstanding, the real problem is that most of these dramas approach royalty with a sense of reverence and delicacy which at times dates and always raises the subjects of the production above their audience. The 1998 film Elizabeth and its 2007 sequel, both starring Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, are a famous example of productions playing fast-and-loose with historical fact but still somehow hoping to give an ‘authentic’ depiction of the Royal, or tell the ‘untold story’ – but as is inevitable with portrayals of famous figures about whom we have little or unsubstantiated information, the character will only ever be some combination of the writer, actor and director’s impression of the real person. Suggesting that any historical drama can reveal the ‘true nature’ or a ‘hidden side’ to its real-life inspirations is a fallacy, and an arrogant one at that. This line is somewhat blurred when it comes to more recent figures, as there is usually a far greater wealth of resources available from which to piece together the person behind the persona – but this is less true in the case of the Royal family, who remain notoriously tight-lipped regarding private matters.
Attempts are rarely even made at a true biopic of Royalty. Most productions seem to get swept up in the grandeur of their own sets and costuming – and often overly grandiose acting, akin to that of the overly reverent Shakespearean actor who is fan first and actor second – and thus fail at any attempt to truly humanise their characters, and instead make them seem even less real and relatable. Films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels are rarely truly relatable to audiences, and when you throw in palace backdrops and headpieces dripping in jewels, the divide is widened. It is the creations which embrace the absurdity of their subject matter that, in my opinion, are the most successful. In Diana (2013), Naomi Watts symbolically kicks off her heels when alone to walk across the carpet barefoot, but the unnecessary focus of the shot turns this into a moment reminding the audience how separate they are from the character on the screen – removing your shoes when home is not something so remarkable for most people. Contrastingly, The King’s Speech and The Favourite (both of which earned numerous awards including the Oscar for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively) embrace a weird playfulness and become more human through their humorous touches. The use of the fisheye lens in The Favourite further accentuates that truth that audience and creators all know: that the reality in this film is not one even remotely imaginable for most people. However, in accepting this, the film actually becomes much more accessible than most depictions of Royals – as does its refusal to shy away from the crude, with Emma Stone’s character arriving at the Royal residence spattered with mud after suffering a carriage ride sat opposite a man smiling at her while touching himself.
It would be impossible to discuss portrayals of royals in film and television without mentioning Netflix’s The Crown. In season 1 the late Prince Philip was shown savvily pushing for Elizabeth’s coronation to be televised to try and increase the monarchy’s popularity and make the public feel a more emotional connection to it. Yet the royals today either can’t or won’t acknowledge that The Crown has actually continued this work, cementing the image of the ineffectual, harmless Queen who lacks any real power, thus making her harder to criticise, and also distracting the public from current scandals (the Prince Andrew interview) by returning its sympathies to older upsets, such as the tragedy of Princess Diana. Marketed in the customary manner as something that would lift the veil and reveal the real people under the jewels and silver spoon accents – one of the promotional videos for the first season showed a pair of doors opening to reveal the characters caught in a ‘candid’ moment before they resume their public faces for a picture to be taken – The Crown has received both praise and reprimands regarding its faithfulness, or not, to reality. In its familiar, misbegotten quest for ‘authenticity’, The Crown has not quite lifted the veil but rather showed us how intricate it appears from the other side. Just like everyone else, these plummy-voiced people can also suffer from heartbreak and jealousy and being the side-lined sibling; unlike everyone else, most of their problems are rooted in their restrictive roles as royals. It is audacious, to say the least, that a group of people whose biggest problems are portrayed as a result of their being trapped at the very top of Britain’s rigid class structure are still expected to garner sympathy among an audience largely made of those trapped in the lower echelons.
Yet the sympathy is there – and for Princess Diana, especially after The Crown’s fourth season, is there in buckets. There is no possibility of a complete normalisation of the Royals simply because of the absurd and immoral reality of the monarchy, but productions like The Crown have still achieved that dual effect of both humanising and further exotifying the royals – and this is the best result any production tackling royalty with the aim of showing their vulnerable side can hope for.
Image credit: U.S. Embassy London via Flickr