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Victoria & Abdul - Why Some Monarchs Give Good Movie

13/09/2017 13:25

Dame Judi Dench assumes the throne again this week. In Stephen Frears' new Victoria & Abdul she resumes the role she made famous in Mrs Brown. And of course another actress, Jemma Coleman, has just returned to the small screens in the eponymous tv series as another incarnation of Queen Victoria, while later this autumn Claire Foy returns in a new series of The Crown.

Our appetite for royal drama seems insatiable - or rather, our appetite for drama about some royals. The question is why some monarchs, rather than others, make such good movie?

It's as if the same few royal roles are circulated round between our leading actresses. Claire Foy played Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall before playing the present Queen; Helen Mirren, star of The Queen, has played Elizabeth I as well as II. Judi Dench herself was the Virgin Queen in Shakespeare in Love, while Vanessa Redgrave has managed to play both Mary Queen of Scots (in the movie of that name almost fifty years ago) and Mary's nemesis Elizabeth Tudor in Anonymous more recently.

That word 'actresses' may be the key. Because what we need from our movie monarchs is this - that their tale offers us a narrative that works for today.

Kings, European ones, may be a difficulty here. Powerful and privileged white males most of their lives offer little scope for any story of winning against the odds, or overcoming difficulty. Except, of course, when they do have some particular, personal, problem to face - The King's Speech, anybody, or The Madness of George III?

But queens are a different matter entirely. Historically, to be born a woman was of itself a bona fide difficulty. The early life of Elizabeth I is the ultimate case in point - herself set aside, her mother executed, in her father's desire for a son; imprisoned in the Tower of London by her sister; engaged in a precarious lifelong balancing act to hold her vulnerable throne. But even Victoria and the second Elizabeth, born into less dangerous days, had nonetheless their own difficulties - not least how to reconcile their disgruntled husband to their sovereignty.

On the one hand, the sight of any queen regnant - any queen who reigns in her own right - offers a spectacle which both gratifies and intrigues today. A woman wielding power, often to the horror of the men around her, and in defiance of the ideas of her age. Her triumphs are our triumphs, while too many of her challenges still seem relevant for our own day.

On the other hand . . . well, the queen is still a woman, isn't she? And one of the film industry's most basic assumptions has always been that a female lead means a love story. But with these reigning royals, the woman's position of power and responsibility offers possibilities far beyond the simple 'boy meets girl' affair.

Victoria and Abdul tells the story of the aged queen's friendship with the Indian servant she called her Munshi - friendship, or scandalous infatuation, as those around her were inclined to say. At a press conference at the Venice Film Festival last week, Judi Dench seized on the question of whether this could properly be called a love story as 'just what makes it so utterly intriguing.'

'Victoria's attitude to Abdul was very complicated - not just love, but being able to be relaxed with someone, without anyone else around, to learn from them. She required that of John Brown, she'd found it in Prince Albert. It was something she didn't have much control over - this incredible need she had.'

Historically, of course, the uncontrollable needs of a reigning queen are exactly what most worried those around her, in whatever century. Shooting at the moment is another film about a reigning queen - Mary Queen of Scots who (when you think of the extraordinary drama of her tale) has actually been rather under-explored by the screen industry.

Perhaps that's because, traditionally, she's been seen in a way that doesn't work for a modern audience. A woman who had power bestowed on her, and managed to throw it all away. Whose disastrous marriages to Lord Darnley and to Bothwell saw her branded as murderess and whore.

Romantic, maybe, if you see her as throwing it all away for love. A religious martyr, if you want to look at her story another way. But neither of those are necessarily the images we like today. It remains to be seen whether the filmmakers can manage to turn the ill-fated Mary into a heroine for the 21st century.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Game of Queens and The Queen's Mary.

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