10 great films about queens and empresses

We lay out the red carpet for Vicky Krieps’ upcoming turn as Empress Elisabeth of Austria with a celebration of cinema’s regal women.

22 December 2022

By Georgina Guthrie

Corsage (2022)

Often said to be chosen by God, queens and empresses maintain an air of mystique via a life of extreme privilege – something that dually adds to their mythical status and brings them under much scrutiny, especially when times are hard. It’s far less easy to stomach pomp and ceremony when your belly’s rumbling.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that films about royalty are overwhelmingly preoccupied with uncovering the human behind the orb and sceptre. Knocking the upper crust down a peg or two is a British pastime (see The Madness of King George, The Lion in Winter, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail for details), but ridiculing royals isn’t just a native sport. Films from across the pond and on the continent similarly love taking a potshot at divine rulers, as The Scarlet Empress (1934) , Marie Antoinette (2006) and A Royal Affair (2012) all testify.

When it comes to queenship in a patriarchal society, there’s an inherent transgressiveness filmmakers are eager to explore. While a female monarch is indeed royalty, she’s never quite free of the constraints bestowed upon her sex – and, as such, very often finds herself more disempowered than most, royals and non-royals alike.

Occupational hazards include arranged marriages, political pawnship, extreme boredom, a lack of freedom, the general public and imbecilic male courtesans – the list goes on. Is it any wonder stories about queens so often deal with debauchery, decadence, abdication and sex? Chosen by God, perhaps – but we’re all flesh and blood, and even royals need a little me time.

As Marie Kreutzer’s acclaimed new historical drama Corsage, starring Vicky Krieps as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, sweeps into cinemas, we examine the cinematic riches queens and empresses have to offer. So put on your finery, pour yourself a glass of champagne, and let’s delve into the salacious and sometimes heartbreaking realm of royal ladies.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928)

Director: Franz Osten

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928)

Shot entirely on location in India, and with an all-Indian cast, Franz Osten’s silent epic is a semi-fictional account of Mumtaz Mahal, a 17th-century Mughal empress so beloved by the emperor that on her death he commissioned the Taj Mahal to be built in her memory. This is a timeless rags-to-riches tale of love and redemption that gives Cinderella a run for its money.

Shiraz comes replete with glittering outfits, a weepie ending (tissues at the ready) and – in its recent BFI restoration – a sumptuous score by celebrated sitar player Anoushka Shankar. Osten adds a fictional backstory to the princess (Enakshi Rama Rau), during which she’s abandoned, adopted, kidnapped and sold into the future emperor’s (Charu Roy) harem. She soon becomes his favourite and falls in love. Stockholm syndrome or divine intervention? Perhaps a little of both. Of course, this orphaned princess was always destined to be a royal – and no-one but a prince could raise her to her rightful place.

Queen Christina (1933)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Queen Christina (1933)

Some have accused director Rouben Mamoulian of giving Queen Christina’s abdication the Hollywood treatment: in reality, the Queen of Sweden stepped down to become a Catholic and evade marriage (it’s generally believed she was a lesbian). In the film’s version of events, she falls for dishy Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert) and resigns in the name of love.

Despite dropping the sapphic side of things, Queen Christina is a transgressive gem in its own right. Garbo is regal and relatable as an androgynous monarch who’s at odds with her male, pale and stale court – though the tussle is less about gender and more about old versus new. The men and townsfolk want tradition and glory, whereas Christina wants peace and freedom. “It had been so enchanting to be a woman, not a queen”, says our eponymous character after tasting a night of liberty. It boils down to the age-old question faced by many a monarch: heart or duty? On this occasion, heart wins. Her subjects fail to see the human behind the crown and unwittingly force their beloved ruler out. It’s a denouement that packs an emotional punch.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

With zero points for historical accuracy, but full marks for entertainment, The Scarlet Empress offers a delightfully debauched take on the tale of how Prussian princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) becomes Catherine the Great. Starting out as a naive youth, she’s shipped off to Moscow, renamed and married to the gormless Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe). From the moment our cooing queen-to-be steps through the door of her new abode, she’s plunged into a nightmarish world where environmental distortions hint at the corrupting power of this murky realm. She swiftly learns to play the system, channeling her ambitious desires into an array of murderous and libidinous activities before seizing the crown.

It’s hard to choose highlights. From opulent outfits and Dietrich’s alluring purr to that reverberating score, director Josef von Sternberg’s masterful use of light and shadows, and an impressionistic set filled with contorted gargoyles, overfilled tables and myriad other grotesqueries, it’s a film that gives a lot and then some. Our pouting princess may have lost her innocence on her way to the throne, but when deceit and duplicity are this fun to watch, do we really care?

Cleopatra (1934)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Cleopatra (1934)

Released three months after the censorious Hays Code came into effect, Cecil B. DeMille’s outrageously risqué entrant to the Cleopatra myth evaded bans thanks to the director’s reputation for ‘classy’ historical dramas. Nevertheless, titillation abounds in this one, with a series of lavish toga-dresses designed to reveal as much of star Claudette Colbert’s chest area as possible (something she herself requested). There’s also a ‘cat’ fight between two women dressed as leopards, a net filled with women dressed as fish (because… why not?) and one of the most outrageous consummation scenes ever committed to celluloid.

Subtle, it is not (and it doesn’t score too highly for historical accuracy either) – but the 1930s deco-inspired set and costumes sure are eye-popping. Like many 30s female-led films, it’s about seduction as part of the power game, and this one comes drenched in libidinous plotting. It all comes tumbling down when Octavian (Ian Keith) puts a stop to things, but you’d better believe our seductive sovereign is going out in style.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Director: Anthony Harvey 

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Packed with endlessly quotable one-liners and meta-jokes (“Of course he has a knife … We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”), and with a cast of notable thespians hamming it up, The Lion in Winter is kitsch and camp but with an undertow of sadness centred around the exiled Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) and her familial strife.

With a voice like oiled gravel, the queen schemes and smiles so sweetly that no-one feels the knife slide in. She’s more than a match for the brutish Henry (Peter O’Toole), and their tussle for power and sharp-elbowed sparring gives noted insult traders Beatrice and Benedict (or Basil and Sybil) a run for their money. Despite the jokes, sadness becomes increasingly present. Eleanor is fast to tear up; Henry prone to thunderous rages – and there are long silences that hint at deeper emotions roiling beneath. “It’s the way I register despair,” replies the stately matriarch when asked why she’s smiling. As she sails back to her castle exile with curled lips, we can only assume it’s the same again. For all her royalty and wiles, this is a man’s world, and she’s a victim of immutable circumstance.

Medea (1969)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini 

Medea (1969)

In her first and only cinematic role, opera star Maria Callas brings diva-esque regality to her performance as the high priestess Medea, the ancient world’s baddest bunny boiler.

Filming in Pisa, Aleppo and Göreme Open Air Museum’s early Christian churches, and with a cast of non-professional actors, Pier Paolo Pasolini brings a primitive naturalism to this story of the untamed ancient world versus atheistic politics. A blend of classical myth and Italian social realism, Medea takes on an anthropological documentary-like quality as it situates this pre-Christian epic of revenge in the context of clashing European tribes. While Queen Medea’s revenge on the unfaithful Jason provides the narrative impetus, it’s equally a story about the old world butting heads with the new, with the high priestess struggling to find a place in the latter. As a dying star swells into a red giant before receding, Medea’s final act of revenge feels less like the fury of a woman scorned, and more like the primal howl of a goddess facing obliteration.

Lancelot du Lac (1974)

Director: Robert Bresson 

Lancelot du Lac (1974)

Robert Bresson reduces the grail quest to mere context and puts Lancelot (Luc Simon) and Queen Guinevere’s (Laura Duke Condominas) love affair in the foreground. We’re in the final days before the collapse of Arthur’s legendary round table. The knights have failed to find the sacred artefact, and, unable to live up to their high ideals, have turned on each other. Only the estranged queen has anything resembling clarity of vision: “It was not the Grail, it was God you all wanted. God is no trophy to bring home.” Not that her remove from chivalric obligations brings her freedom; she’s mere collateral as this manly kingdom crumbles around her.

Lancelot du Lac embodies a distillation of both the Arthurian myth and Bresson’s own style – this is the director at his most economical as he tells the story though absences, abstractions and peripherals: a jousting match shown through a series of close-ups; the rattle of armour and the thud of horse hooves; a missing king; a failed quest; an absent God and two anguished ex-lovers. The result is a stark Arthurian retelling that feels both ancient and eternal.

Elizabeth (1998)

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Elizabeth (1998)

Finding the balance between emotional integrity and historical accuracy, Shekhar Kapur’s opulent royal saga plays out like a thriller: the eponymous queen navigates love and betrayal, death and royal duty, while dispensing with the Catholic enemies plotting to remove this Protestant princess along the way.

After heartbreak at the hands of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) finally casts aside her youthful affections and restyles herself as Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. A transformational sequence in which she shears off her red locks and cakes herself in Spirits of Saturn – that iconic white lead-based makeup – serves to signal a final change in our sovereign. It feels dually like an act of empowerment and self-harm as she trades flesh and blood for steel and sinew. Such is life as a royal, and in this particular battle between heart and duty, duty reigns supreme. “Must I be made of stone?” young Elizabeth asks before she’s crowned Queen of England – the answer, she learns, is ‘yes’.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Whisked from her home at 14, strip-searched to ensure virginity and deprived of her beloved pet dog, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is swiftly reduced to political pawn as she’s paired up with the dimwitted Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) to produce an heir. Confined to a world run by strict court protocol, she finds outlets for her youthful exuberance in partying, fashion and love affairs. Can you blame her? In a stroke of genius, Sofia Coppola opts for a contemporary pop soundtrack and anachronisms that place Marie in the now rather than the distant past: we’re watching a relatable teenage girl who’s grossly misunderstood by those around her. Not that anyone cares to attempt the challenge.

We all know how things ended for the real Queen Marie, but Coppola neatly side-steps morbidity, opting instead for a graceful balcony bow in place of a beheading. The concept of death is inconceivable for teenagers, so full of life – and the closing image of a smashed chandelier in the royal palace feels more like the end of a party than anything more severe.

The Favourite (2018)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos 

The Favourite (2018)

Royalty has rarely been treated with such ridicule. Based on the real-life misadventures of Queen Anne, The Favourite hones in on an overcrowded ménage-à-trois between the monarch (Olivia Colman), Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and the latter’s cousin, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), as they vie for the queen’s favours.

Like an overindulged child, the tragicomic Anne throws tantrums, vomits up cake and demands to be escorted from a party in her wheelchair like a toddler in a buggy. But what initially seems like a potshot at British royalty turns into something far more humane as the vast sweep of life plays out in one royal court, and specifically, one body. Her Maj’s tantrums and fickle affections transition into the cruel impotence of a mind unable to cope with the pain of failing flesh. After a stroke, the gout-plagued royal blindly stumbles down palace corridors, as much a stranger in her own home as she is her own body and mind. There’s nothing to laugh at here; it’s a fate that awaits us all.

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