Only very recently did the Queen make her screen breakthrough. Like British Shakespearean stage veterans who suddenly find themselves in a huge movie franchise late in life, the monarch found herself knocking it out of the park with a superstarring role in the 2012 London Olympics, opposite Daniel Craig’s 007. And Craig looked almost paralysed by his co-star’s prestige, walking stiffly down the Palace corridor alongside her and the corgis, with an odd, pursed-lipped expression, perhaps unsure of how – or if – to signal his own awareness of the comic craziness underlying this unprecedented event.
With her Olympic walk-onthe Queen had astonished, thrilled and even slightly shocked some of her audience, who perhaps feared she might be embarrassed or demeaned if it all somehow went wrong. They needn’t have worried. She sailed through it. And at the platinum jubilee in February, when she played herself opposite another Brit cinema franchise icon, Paddington Bear, she was even more relaxed, gleefully producing the marmalade sandwich from her handbag and cheerfully tapping out the rhythm to Queen’s We Will Rock You on her teacup.
But these cheeky cameos came at the very end of her long life, when the idea of impudent showbiz lèse-majesté had just about been phased out and the Queen was allowed to be, and perhaps expected to be, more of a good sport. In parallel with this, there has been a veritable parade of actors playing the Queen on Netflix’s The Crownwith Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton playing the late monarch at various ages.
These are sustained, intimate impersonations that would have been unthinkable until very recently and still partly account for the BBC’s reluctance to produce the show – it wasn’t just about the budget. But before that, there weren’t too many major dramatisations of HM, not compared with a legend such as, say, Winston Churchill, who has been portrayed countless times on screens big and small.
Having said this, the Queen was always a cinema figure in that she was forever shaking hands with beaming stars at Royal Command performances throughout her epic reign. There is virtually no Hollywood movie star who has not performed with her in the Odeon Leicester Square receiving line, a scene endlessly remade with new supporting casts over the years, a genre of silent light comedy in which the Queen says something innocuous to the star who laughs delightedly at a line that was evidently mildly roguish and flirtatious. What was it? The Queen’s performance remained sphinx-like and Zeligesque over decades.
But the monarch’s absence from movies had a social as well as a dramatic dimension: in some senses, her ubiquity somehow pre-empted the novelty necessary for any true-life biopic, however respectful. She was on local news bulletins year round, cutting ribbons and meeting beaming dignitaries, and on national TV every year for the Christmas broadcast, whose unworldly formality was increasingly adored as the Queen became grandmother to the nation. This over-familiarity, combined with residual deference, meant a movie was hardly guaranteed to go down well.
Moreover, movie producers were probably disconcerted by the mysterious and essential inactivity of the Queen. She was the still centre of the turning circle of national and international events. The Queen didn’t do anything – her subjects did the dramatic heroism. All this contributed to the longstanding taboo or convention that playing the Queen was in bad taste, even sacrilegious to our unwritten quasi-constitution.
But above all this, the Queen didn’t need to be shown in a movie – she was already in a movie! The monarch was already the star of that giant, phantasmagorical 24/7 fantasia of her own remarkable situation. So many people have had a dream about the Queen and so many report that actually meeting the Queen was very dreamlike. Certainly it was very dreamlike for me, when I met her at a Bafta event in 2013.
Like everyone else, I reported to Windsor Castle that evening squeaking with self-aware excitement (how bored the Queen must have been with this kind of semi-satirical delirium in people she met). I had been strictly instructed: you never talk to her before she talks to you; and it’s “Your Majesty” the first time, “Ma’am” thereafter, to rhyme with “Pam” (don’t get flustered and call her “Pam”).
I found myself in a group with the Queen that included Minnie Driver, who handled the situation brilliantly, and an executive from Warner Brothers, who had not got the memo about not starting conversations. “What’s your favourite horror film, Your Majesty?” he said. A tiny silence descended. The Queen asked me crisply, her eyes boring into mine: “What’s the name of that horror film that begins with a G?” Various courtiers and functionaries turned expectantly to me, looking like the giant playing cards from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The silence extended. The room was melting. I couldn’t think of a single word beginning with a G. Eventually I said: “Is it The Grinch, Your Majesty?” “Yes!” said the Queen, beaming. “The Grinch!”
The Queen has appeared in documentaries, of course, such as 1953’s A Queen Is Crowned, written by Christopher Fry and sonorously narrated by Laurence Olivier – a film that pretty well established the template for live TV coverage of all royal events thereafter. And she herself greenlit the BBC’s 1969 documentary Royal Family, which showed her in what was for the time a remarkably intimate way, but which the Royals themselves appeared to have second thoughts about, as it was not repeated, finally surfacing on YouTube.
But the first really substantial fiction-feature movie dramatisation came in 2006, with Stephen Frears’s The Queenwritten by Peter Morgan (who went on to write The Crown). Tellingly, the film was about the Queen being challenged to come into the modern world of mass media after Diana’s death and explain herself. Helen Mirren’s portrayal was a treat, evidently trying her hardest to make HM everything her supporters hoped she would be in private: wise, witty, patient, crisp and faintly martyred – though uncomplainingly so – by all the hard work she’s doing. She was taller and younger than the actual Queen, and less posh, the word “off” becoming “orf” only once.
Like Prunella Scales in the Alan Bennett TV play A Question Of Attribution in 1991, the actor playing the Queen has to make her a shrewd, droll critic of the modern world as it unfolds in front of her, but not too droll, not too showy. Is that what the Queen was really like? Who knows?
Samantha Bond played the Queen in the larky 2018 TV movie The Queen And I, based on the Sue Townsend novel about the monarch being dethroned by a republican government. Amusing though Townsend’s fantasy is, there is perhaps a kind of dereliction of imaginative duty in simply putting the Queen in a hugely bizarre, counter-factual situation: it looks like panto Spitting Image, not cinema. The challenge is to engage with the real life.
When Stella Gonet subtly played her in Pablo Larrain’s 2021 film Spencerwith Kristen Stewart as the deeply unhappy Diana, spending her last Christmas at Sandringham before her marriage finally collapsed, she was in an interesting situation. The Queen she was playing had to be somehow central to the entire situation and yet also peripheral – either way, she is almost invisible. The star of that drama is of course Diana, whom the movie puts into all sorts of surreal and hallucinatory situations in which there is naturally no room for the stuffy old Queen. (When this story was dramatised in The Crown, Colman’s Queen had a much more direct role.)
In a way, film-makers might have felt more emboldened to tackle the Queen in her younger pre-Queen self. The Canadian actor Sarah Gadon gave a great performance as Princess Elizabeth in 2015’s A Royal Night Outan entertaining what-if fantasy about what she and Princess Margaret might have got up to on VE Night 1945 when they were allowed out of the palace to mingle incognito with the revellers.
I wrote a novel about this escapade in 2013, entitled Night of Triumph, which tackled the same fundamental difficulty. How do you put the Queen in a quasi-romantic situation? Imagining the meet-cute with Prince Philip would feel impertinent – that constitutional forelock-tugging again – but imagining a frisson with someone else would be ungallant and a creative misstep. So I imagined Princess Elizabeth as a good-matured innocent exploited by a seedy, spivvy gangster. The movie, meanwhile, gave Princess Elizabeth a very sweet platonic encounter.
A Royal Night Out is a spirited and attractive account of the Queen as a young woman – although, like every other film, it was hemmed in by this constitutional, existential difficulty. The Queen was never free to do exactly what she might have wanted to do. She did not have the freedom to be a protagonist – although the VE Night adventure was arguably the closest she ever got.
The real Queen is an enigma that movies have never entirely addressed: perhaps in future years, she will inspire a more irreverent, more mould-breaking, more secular performance, like Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth I or Frances McDormand’s Fern in Nomadland. A movie about the Queen might be a more experimental, low-budget, non-Netflix account of the years of her widowhood, or her experiences in wartime, or her relationship with her mother, or (the most painful of all) her relationship with her favourite son, Andrew.
Elizabeth II is a riddle the cinema has yet to solve. Her great moment on the big screen has yet to arrive.