Queens and their minions have have been a constant staple in movies since the inception of the medium. Kings as well, although the distaff version of historical drama plays way better on the big screen in terms of plot twists, costumes and characterization.
Think about it — how many films have been made of Cleopatra (starting with silent film actress Sarah Bernhardt) or Queen Elizabeth (everyone from Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett) versus how many films have been made about Henry V or Richard III?
And although Rami Malik in Bohemian Rhapsody remarks that there is “only room in this band for one hysterical queen,” I’m of the opinion that the more queens you can get in one shot the better.
Fortunately for those of us who have an interest in august historical drama that gets into the nitty and gritty of things, there are two new films that are currently playing featuring some famously fiery queens that offer their lucky viewers historical drama played out like you’ve rarely seen.
Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite are both out now, and you would be remiss to miss the opportunity to see their firework-drama play out on the bigscreen.
It’s worth noting that although Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan in the titular role and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth, actually places the famous first-cousins-once-removed in the same timeframe, all historical sources say they never actually met. Smoke signals and emails between the two blood relatives were sent, but there was never an actual in-person tête-à-tête. In the film, Margot Robbie plays an Elizabeth with really bad acne, and Saoirse Ronan plays a stoic Mary.
Helmed by theater director Josie Rourke in her feature film debut, Mary Queen of Scots bursts forward with its kitchen-sink depiction of life in the late 16th century. The tone of the film renders the lively narrative stark, with colorful clothing shunned by the gloomy production design.
Meanwhile, The Favourite explores intrigue in the court of Queen Anne, who reigned from March 1702 through May 1707.
Olivia Coleman plays Anne to perfection, with superb support from a conniving Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill (aka The Duchess of Marlborough) and a primal Emma Stone as Abigail Hill.
Whereas the time setting of Mary Queen of Scots suggests conflict between Catholic and Protestant, The Favourite shows how religious cultism eventually evolved into political parties like the Tory and the Whigs.
The more you know about history, the more you will appreciate some of the period detail rendered in these films: The battle of wills between Abigail and Lady Sarah (cousins just like Elizabeth and Mary), the death of Mary’s second husband by assassination carried out by the committee of ruling lords that had gathered to eventually take down Mary, Mary striping down to crimson underwear before her execution
Queen Anne, not unlike Henry VIII, died so obese she was buried in a box not in a coffin. And in reality, the execution of Mary took three swipes of the blade to completely sever her head from her spirit. But neither of these films flirt with the common conception of historical drama. While Mary Queen of Scots is kitchen sink in its depiction of the times, The Favourite on the other hand revels in the auteur handling of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who may be the most flamboyant helmer since Ken Russell.
There are spectacular set pieces in this film that are as amazing for the acting as for the actual setting. Equally noticeable are the unique wide-angle shots that include panoramic whip-pans. Robbie Ryan, the film’s cinematographer, uses lenses shorter than 10mm, and he also frames many of the scenes from a very low angle. This is revealed in the film to be the point of view of the several rabbits that Queen Anne keeps as pets. Every rabbit represents one of the 17 children to which Queen Anne gave birth. Most died stillborn or shortly after childbirth, and of the two that lived, the oldest died at age 11.
It’s possible that Mary Queen of Scots may be too much of a period piece to rival the audiences attracted to The Favourite, the latter riddled with sardonic and visual panache. Both, however, are worth a watch.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has a current exhibit, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, that celebrates the portraits of British royalty (on display until Jan. 27). In the exhibition, much to the delight of anyone who has seen the two recent queen-centric films, fine art can be found depicting Queen Anne, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.
The portrait of Mary Queen of Scots can be found early on in the exhibit, an oil on oak panel painting approximately 10 by 7 inches, the artist anonymous.
Meanwhile, the portrait of Queen Anne dominates its gallery with a life-size image that measures 95 by 56 inches. The painting, oil on canvas, dates from 1690, years before Anne was sovereign. The artist is Sir Godfrey Kneller.
Likewise, in another gallery, the portraiture of Queen Elizabeth, dated from 1592 and painted by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger, looms large at 95 by 60 inches. The portrait is also known as “The Ditchley portrait,” and it shows the Virgin Queen as she was five years after Mary was beheaded.
If you’ve seen Mary Queen of Scots or The Favourite, a stop by this exhibition is a must. The queens depicted in the exhibition’s portraits may still have heads, but that doesn’t mean they are any less bloody than they are in their onscreen depictions.
Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite are currently playing in area theaters.