Once upon a time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle turned the monarchy on its head with their no-holds-barred interview with a shell-shocked Oprah Winfrey. If the fallout of Harry and Meghan's royal exit left you more curious than ever about the institution they left behind, its power structure, and the complexities surrounding life as a key player in a monarchy, there’s no easier way to learn more—or, at least, be entertained while taking in the gorgeous costumes and sets—than by cueing up one of the best royal films. While these fictionalized works have undoubtedly taken liberties with the real-world details of their subject matter, with some painting more factually accurate pictures than others (The Queen, for instance, is far more rooted in history than, say, The Princess Diaries), there’s something intriguing about the pressures and privileges of the crown that these films explore. Without further ado, here are movies to watch for a glimpse behind the curtain of the monarchy.
‘The King’s Speech’
Nominated for a whopping 12 Oscars at the 83rd Academy Awards and winning four, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Colin Firth’s poignant turn as King George IV, The King’s Speech was a major success upon its 2010 release. In it, we see the true story of the monarch, who suffered from an impenetrable stammer, working with a speech and language therapist to overcome his disorder as he prepares to make a national speech declaring war on Nazi Germany. With Helena Bonham Carter in a supporting role as Queen Elizabeth, the film gives a riveting look at the private battles being fought by the ruler behind the scenes of one of the biggest turning points in history.
‘Grace of Monaco'
“I don’t know how I’m going to spend the rest of my life in this place where I can’t be me,” Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) whispers to her trusted confidant, Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), at the height of her despair. The American movie star upended her whole life in the states and gave up her career to become Princess Grace of Monaco, wife to Prince Rainier III, but it doesn't go how she had hoped. Everything she says and does seems to be wrong, her new husband is cold and distant, and she misses things back home. While it’s unclear whether such a conversation between the two actually took place, other real-life friends of Kelly’s hinted at her initial unhappiness in her new life. "I am sure there were times in the early years when she felt somewhat like a prisoner in a gilded cage behind the palace walls," said Joan Dale, Kelly’s closest friend, in an excerpt from her book (opens in new tab), My Days With Princess Grace of Monaco. While moviemaker Alfred Hitchcock, for whom she was a muse, tried to woo the actress back to the States (opens in new tab) to make more films, Kelly ultimately remained by her husband’s side in Monaco during the country’s international crisis with France. Princess Grace also made an effort to learn the language and customs of her new home, settling into the country where she would live out the remainder of her life.
Naomi Watts took on the beloved persona of England’s Rose for 2013’s romantic drama, Diana. Set in the years following Diana's divorce from Prince Charles, the movie gives an intimate perspective of the intense public scrutiny the former royal faced as she attempted to move on from life inside the palace walls with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Like the real-life story, it ends in tragedy, with a fatal car crash that would leave both England and the world at large in mourning.
‘Mary Queen of Scots’
Helmed by Josie Rourke, this female-directed film tells the steely tale of two queens of the era, Mary of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), who notoriously battled each other for the right to England’s crown. The movie takes plenty of liberties with the two cousins—their impassioned face-to-face arguments, for instance, never actually took place (opens in new tab). In real life, Mary, who took the throne at the ripe old age of six days old (yes, you read that right!) was gruesomely beheaded in 1587 by order of Elizabeth I, after Mary was implicated (opens in new tab) in a plot to have the English monarch killed.
You can’t talk about royal films without discussing 2006’s The Queen, for which a heavily makeup-ed Helen Mirren won an Academy Award. Set in the days following Diana’s death in 1997, the film explores the inner workings of the monarchy as its highest-ranking members decide what role, if any, they are to play in the public mourning of the departed princess. Having been stripped of her formal Her Royal Highness title following her divorce from Prince Charles one year prior, Diana was no longer considered a member of the royal family. Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren), therefore, believes she owes the public little in the way of an acknowledgment of her ex-daughter-in-law’s demise and is averse to a public funeral service. Though liberties were taken from the real-life story (in the film, it’s up to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, as played by Michael Sheen, to change her mind, and ultimately, save the monarchy) some of the film's plot was likely rooted in truth (opens in new tab). With actual headlines from the time reading, “Show Us You Care” and the world watching on the real-life stage, England’s long-time ruler chose, in real life, to fly the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace for the first time ever and pay tribute to the late princess in a nationally televised address (opens in new tab).
The trailer for this visually stunning piece from director Sofia Coppola may look more like a Halloween episode of Gossip Girl than a period piece, what with its over-the-top ensembles, Pinterest-worthy confections, and fabulously wealthy soirées. But don’t be fooled. It not only loosely documents the life of the late Queen of France as recounted by Antonia Frazer from her biographical work of the same name (opens in new tab), but it also reminds the viewer of the tender age at which she took the throne—19—and the unending scrutiny that came along with her title. “It's kind of like a history of feelings, rather than a history of facts,” star Kirsten Dunst said of the film (opens in new tab). It’s those relatable feelings—of doubt, rebelliousness, lust, fear, and regret—that will stay with viewers long after the credits have begun to roll.
‘Harry and Meghan: Becoming Royal’
Lifetime released not one, not two, but three, different portrayals of the royal couple in its Harry & Meghan series. It’s the second film, Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal, that takes on a whole new meaning in the light of the real-life duo’s televised sit-down with Oprah, however. The film touches on Meghan’s desire to retain her voice and her sense of self while adjusting to her new role within the royal family; Harry’s unwavering support of his new bride; and the unrelenting ridicule they faced together in the public eye. It’s a sympathetic look at the pair’s experiences which seems eerily in line with details from their interview—despite being released nearly two years prior.
Long before Princess Diana, Duchess Kate, and Duchess Meghan were captivating the world with their royal love affairs, it was Diana’s great-great-great-great aunt, Georgiana Spencer, who had tongues wagging with her union to William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire. Depicted by Keira Knightley in 2008’s The Duchess, Spencer, who came to power in the late 18th century, wasn’t exactly blessed with a fairytale marriage—far from. Rather, her loveless union would prove to become even more insufferable by the pressures put upon the young English socialite to produce a male heir (opens in new tab).
‘The Prince & Me’
For a more light-hearted take on life as a royal, there’s the 2004 rom-com The Prince & Me, in which the fictitious Edvard of Denmark leaves his world as a crowned prince behind to experience life as a student on American soil. There, he meets Paige (Julia Stiles), who opens him up to everything he’s been missing out on. It’s not all doves and roses for the fledgling couple, however; they still must win over Edvard’s disapproving parents, King Harald and Queen Rosalind. The film's poignant themes of longing for escape from the obligations of public service and feeling "trapped" are likely ones Prince Harry himself could relate to. As Queen Rosalind tells her son’s new paramour, “Being royal requires you to sacrifice who you are for who you must be.”
With an all-star cast that includes Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Coleman, The Favourite sees a growing rivalry between the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Weisz), and her cousin, Abigail Masham (Stone), over Queen Anne’s favor in her court. The competitiveness between the two women was apparently very real (opens in new tab), with each attempting to use their relationship with the queen in order to support their own political gains for their respective parties: the Whigs and the Tories.
‘The Princess Switch’
In a classic Parent Trap-style plot, a young baker named Stacy DeNovo (Vanessa Hudgens) uses her uncanny likeness to Duchess Lady Margaret Delacourt (also played by Hudgens) to swap lives, allowing Lady Margaret to flee from her bubble of privilege into obscurity as Stacy experiences the finer things in life. In doing so, they change their fates forever, as well as those of their love interests, one of whom just so happens to be a crowned prince. While the film, which is set during Christmas time, is a goofy one, the underlying theme of entrapment shines through Margaret, who is desperate to get out of the spotlight, if only for a few days.
Before Queen Elizabeth II ruled on high, there was Queen Elizabeth I, who went down in history as the only English queen to never marry. While she has been portrayed in several films and television adaptations throughout the years, it was 1998’s Elizabeth, which featured Cate Blanchett as the leading lady, that would perhaps become the most acclaimed. Though Elizabeth I managed to establish Protestantism during her reign, champion the arts, and bring peace to her then-tumultuous country, her worth was reduced by many of her subjects to what was seen as a failure to wed and produce a royal heir. In the end, it was her rival, Queen Mary of Scots, that would birth the next King of England, James IV of Scotland. With Elizabeth, however, Blanchett managed to restore some of the historical figure’s power, proclaiming herself a bride of England and ruling as “the virgin queen.”
‘The Young Victoria’
Queen Victoria, who served as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland for 63 years, was no shrinking violet. Case in point? When tradition dictated that no one could propose to a reigning monarch, she took matters into her own hands, proposing to the man (opens in new tab) who would go on to become her husband, Prince Albert, the father of their nine shared children, and the love of her life. Their epic romance is recreated in the 2009 flick The Young Victoria, in which Emily Blunt gives a whip-smart performance as the fiercely independent—if sometimes sheltered—titular character, who would succeed King William IV at just 18 years old. Wrote Roger Ebert (opens in new tab) at the time, “Victoria lives in a hermetically sealed world. She meets no one not vetted by the palace hierarchy, has no meaningful independence, is having her life mapped for reasons of state, not the heart.” Still, she made the most of it: Her period of reign is now associated with the country’s golden age of expansion (opens in new tab).
The main theme of Netflix’s The King? Be careful who you trust—especially when you’re a ruling monarch. A war film based on Shakespeare’s dramatized account of King Henry V’s rule, this Netflix adaptation sees star Timothée Chalamet being begrudgingly drawn into the final stages of the Hundred Years’ War at the urging of those in his court. While he would be remembered as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England, in the film he accepts his role with reluctance—something that differed from the king’s real-life demeanor. According to the history books, the real Henry V believed himself to be “divinely ordained to carry out God’s great work,” which could only be achieved through a show of military force (opens in new tab).
‘The Girl King’
Queen Christina, née Kristina Augusta, rose to power in the 17th century, having succeeded her father, Gustavus Adolphus, at just six years old. Having reportedly read about England’s “virgin queen” Elizabeth I, Queen Christina shocked her kingdom by doing the same, refusing to take a suitor as her husband. Her journey— which was once portrayed by screen siren Greta Garbo in the 1933 film Queen Christina—was recreated for the silver screen once more with 2015’s The Girl King. This adaptation more closely explores her non-conformist relationship with gender and her rumored sexual affairs with her closest friend, Ebba Sparre. It also recounts the events that led the Swedish ruler to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism and abdicate her throne in 1654 to her cousin, Charles Gustav.
'Coming to America'
Eddie Murphy is at his best in this hilarious comedy about fictional Prince Akeem Joffer of fictional kingdom of Zamunda searching for a wife who can "arouse [his] intellect as well as [his] loins." To find such a woman, Akeem and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) travel to the United States, specifically Queens, NY, where they get jobs at a fast-food restaurant in order to spend more time wooing woman of his dreams. While, again, this story is completely made up, its full-throated endorsement of marrying for love is one that we (and, we suspect, Harry and Meghan) can get behind.
‘The Princess Diaries’
If there’s one film you’re sure to have seen on this list, it’s The Princess Diaries. Before you scoff at the inclusion of this feel-good Disney classic, hear us out. Sure, heroine Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway in her breakout role) is completely made-up, but a quick refresher of this early aughts film proves that many of the protocols and behaviors the teen is forced to adopt as an heir to the fictional kingdom of Genovia ring rather true as far as royalty goes. For Mia, it’s not enough to simply don a tiara and shine her inner light. Rather, her grandmother, Queen Clarisse of Genovia (Julie Andrews), sets out to mold her into someone more worthy of the crown. With rule after rule to learn (“Princesses never cross their legs in public,” Queen Clarisse declares), Mia is ultimately forced to choose between her life of normalcy and her newfound imperial duties. (Sounds … familiar, no?)
'The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement'
So long as you're watching Princess Diaries, you might as well cue up the sequel. In the adorable follow-up a post-college Princess Mia returns to Genovia only to find out that an antiquated rule requires her to marry before she can ascend to the throne—and another Genovian is plotting to take the crown. While most real-life modern royal families don't follow such sexist requirements anymore, the British royal family did only change the line of succession so that Princess Charlotte would remain ahead of her little brother, Louis. The flick keeps it all lighthearted, rom-com antics ensue, and a dashing young prince William is even floated as a husband option. I won't spoil it for you, but just like Meghan and Harry, Mia gets her happy ending.
'The Other Boleyn Girl'
The Tudors may be the sexiest portrayal of King Henry XIII's relationship dramas, but this movie starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana gives the Showtime series a run for its money. And while we know ol' Hank liked to sleep around (he had six wives and many mistresses, remember), that may be one of the few historically accurate aspects of this film. The movie, based on the book of the same name by Philippa Gregory, centers on Henry's real-life second wife, Anne Boleyn, and her sister Mary, with whom he was also romantically involved. Although some major plot points are fuzzy (it's not confirmed by historians that Mary's son was Henry's, and all that incest stuff is questionable), what's definitely true is that this love triangle was filled with deceit, revenge, and, eventually, beheading.
'Shakespeare in Love'
Okay, this one is really about William Shakespeare and how he came to write his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, but it does star Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I. There's some hubbub about whether the person playing Juliet is a woman (outlawed!) or a man. Spoiler alert: It's a woman, Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), pretending to be a man so that she can act. Elizabeth realizes this but allows the charade to continue as she "knows something of a woman in a man's profession." (Elizabeth was only the second woman to serve as Queen of England.)
'A Royal Affair'
This Danish film depictis the true 18th-century story of the romantic affair between the Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician of King Christian VII of Denmark. The real-life scandal changed the country in many ways, as Queen Caroline and Struensee were both Enlightenment thinkers that enacted several progressive reforms. As for the film, it's both historically accurate and gorgeously portrayed, with a pre-Oscar Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen giving great performances.
'A Royal Night Out'
This film imagines young Princesses Elizabeth (pre-Queendom) and Margaret getting into adventures before the events of The Crown. On V-E Day in 1945, the two royals (played by Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley) leave Buckingham Palace to take part in the festivities, with the permission of King George VI. They end up ditching their chaperones and hanging out among the common people, including a pair of cute suitors, at sites like SoHo and Trafalgar Square. Though it's all fantasy, the light-hearted adventure is a very fun "what if" for fans of the royal family.
'The Lion King'
Hear me out: The Lion King is the best royal Disney movie, even among all those princesses. It's often compared to Hamlet, with prince Simba growing into a capable leader after his uncle kills his father and assumes the throne. Behind songs like "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" and "He Lives in You" is a kid-friendly tale about embracing a legacy and taking responsibility as a monarch. Plus, if you just can't see the cartoon as an epic drama, the live-action remake gives an extra dose of realism (and Beyoncé as a voice actor).
Nicole Briese is an editor and writer based in Chicago. You can catch her often quirky musings over at her blog, Nicolebjean, or at USA TODAY (where she serves as the Managing Editor of Deals), Brides, Us Weekly, Refinery 29, Woman's World, Brit + Co, and more.
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