It’s very clear The Crown is here to stay – at least for another two seasons, that is. Showrunner Peter Morgan’s protestations that the beloved Netflix show would stop after season five were rebutted last month when the streaming service announced a sixth series. One wonders what the drama will look like now that the story is getting perilously close to living memory. With six seasons, they can hardly avoid touching on one of the royal family’s most contentious moments: Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in 1997.
For avid royalists, the pitched battle between England’s matriarch and the People’s Princess is catnip. All the drama of divided loyalties will be relived with none of the real stakes. For the royalty-weary, it will be, at best, another strained gloss on events which touched no ordinary person’s life at the time, and at worst, a tastelessly sensationalised depiction of a tragically early death.
This list is not for the second group. But for those who love an onscreen king or queen almost as much as the real thing, here are the five best portrayals of monarchs in films. When The Crown finally kicks the bucket, you can fall back on these perennial portraits. You can’t get commemorative plates with their faces on, though. (Probably).
Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria (2009)
This performance, from England’s rising ice queen Blunt, seems like a clear predecessor to Claire Foy in The Crown. Of the choices in this list, it’s the most similar. The Young Victoria deals exclusively in the most lurid details of Victoria’s reign: assassination attempts, power plays, sexual tension. It’s all held together by Blunt’s self-possessed performance.
Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956)
This is a controversial one, to say the least. Mid-20th-century Russian-American icon Yul Brynner takes on the heavily troped role of King Mongkut of Siam (modern Thailand), which he had originated on stage five years earlier. While there’s much to criticise in the film’s portrayal of Western relations with Thailand – the plot essentially revolves around the “civilising” of the monarch by an English governess played by Deborah Kerr – Brynner’s performance well deserves the Oscar it won. By turns imperious, appealing and comical, his king is a thoughtful study of tradition and tyranny in a highly ceremonial environment.
Ian McKellen in Richard III (1995)
What happens when a king is thoroughly, gleefully bad? Shakespeare’s most popular history play dives deep into this question, anchoring it around the hand-strokingly diabolical central character. In Richard Loncraine’s 1995 adaptation, the 15th century is exchanged for the 1930s, with the royals dressed in immaculate military regalia. But the drama of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy is all there, and McKellen glitters as the compulsively manipulative Richard. Look out as well for a RADA class’s worth of English luvvies in the supporting cast (Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne… er, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr…).
Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries (2001)
OK, she’s not playing a real character, and Genovia is definitely not a real country – as far as we know. But who could discount Andrews’s poised performance as the Queen of Mitteleuropa? It’s a masterclass in grace, reserve and immaculate style: all the things Americans expect from royalty. Don’t go looking for the heartache and tough policy decisions of The Crown here: this is monarchy strictly à la mode, its duties limited to state dinners and choosing the right tiara. But boy, does Queen Julie pull it off.
Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julian in Madagascar (2005)
I mean, come on.