Acting royalty acting Royalty
Think of the best films featuring kings and queens. The King’s Speech, The Queen, Elizabeth. Now think of who was acting the monarch. Was it Jude Law or Anna Friel? No, probably not. The thing is, it takes more than acting ability to pull of the greatest of roles- as leader of a nation. Just ask Emily Blunt. No one is doubting her talent, but The Young Victoria doesn’t rank anywhere near The Queen in terms of cinematic clout. But why not?
Ok, so here in Blighty, we have what many refer to as acting royalty. We are a nation that has produced Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, even Laurence Olivier. These actors can do no wrong in our eyes, the roles they take on are played to perfection, they steal every scene and they never set a foot wrong.
Now, sooner or later, our acting royalty get offered the chance to actually play royalty. Whether it is the story that attracts them to the film, or the role or just because dammit they want to wear a crown, these actors take up the challenge to play a specific monarch. Helen Mirren did it in The Queen, Judi Dench was Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, Ian McKellen has been Tsar Nicholas III and Richard III (he gets around a bit) and if we extend the parameters of this discussion to include honorary Brits, Cate Blanchett made a very fine Elizabeth I.
Now, we are not talking about run of the mill talents here. Between them, this lot have been nominated for an Oscar seventeen times. Throw Laurence Olivier and his eleven nominations and two honorary awards into the mix, and you see the calibre of people we are dealing with here.
So, is it just talent that makes them so good at depicting Kings and Queens? Or is there something else that is required to take a decent drama into a box office sell out?
The strange thing is that some actresses, like Emily Blunt; just don’t fit into the royal mould. And lack of talent isn’t the reason. She was brilliant in The Devil Wears Prada and My Summer of Love, but somehow, her young Victoria just didn’t ignite. We never truly engaged with her as Victoria, we never really believed she was anything other than an actress playing a part. Similarly, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette was good, but not convincing.
Now, let us consider who our Kings and Queens are. Elizabeth II and all her fellow monarchs from way back when were the ones who worked tirelessly for their public, demonstrated innate beauty, grace, commanded respect and awe in all they came across and were aspirational figures for the adoring public. Who is that equivalent today if not our acting royalty? Faith in our modern day monarchs has faded, and yet we still expect portrayals of them to command the same respect the royals themselves once did. It is not enough to act it well, in order to feel that flicker of divine right we have to feel invested in their performance, in a way that a loyal subject feels invested in a dedicated ruler. Who can do this expect those people who have come to represent royalty itself; our hallowed actors and actresses? Helen Mirren was already a queen in our eyes before she came anywhere near that crown, and that’s why it worked. You cannot just take on a royal role, you have to earn it.
Judi Dench obviously commands respect. This is the woman who has stood toe to toe with James Bond without flinching, who broke hearts in Chocolat, who has starred in Notes On A Scandel, The Shipping News, Iris and countless more. Whether on stage or in film, she impresses again and again. In winning an Oscar for her depiction of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, she compounded what us Brits have known for ages- namely, that she is the best actress of her generation. Ok, critics argued that a supporting actress should you know, be on screen a tiny bit longer than she was but hey- she deserved it. After all, she should have won for Mrs Brown, so the Academy were merely awarding her a couple of years too late. If anyone can play the feistiest of all monarchs, Elizabeth I, she can.
As can Cate Blanchett. She may be from the land down under, but she deserves her place amongst acting royalty. Her steadfast calmness and poise land her firmly in this category, and that is before you begin to list her films- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Good German, The Aviator, The Talented Mr Ripley, Babel to name but a few. Never over acting, always delivering, Blanchett is imbued with that fine mix of talent and, more importantly, understanding. And it just goes to show, depicting a queen is not limited to the more mature actresses out there, as Blanchett was twenty-nine when she starred in Elizabeth. And we believed in her despite her tender years.
And what of the men? Well, the man in the public eye right now is Colin Firth, winner of a Golden Globe and in line for his first Oscar in a few weeks time. Much has been written on The King’s Speech, all of it positive. So instead of repeating what has been said elsewhere, let us just say that Firth gives a heart wrenchingly powerful performance as the struggling monarch King George VI. For the film to succeed, we have to believe in Firth’s performance, believe in the turmoil and gut wrenching despair his King must go through. And we do, as overwhelmingly Firth turns a stammering royal into a leader of an Empire. But this belief was with us from word go- he didn’t have to earn it on screen. He had done that already in A Single Man, and as Mr Darcy (swoon).
So who else should be conducted into the hallowed halls of acting royalty? Who else falls into this category based on their achievements to date, but who has not yet read a historical script and thought “Hmm, why not?”? Well, top of the list has to be Kate Winslet, already an Oscar winner and with a diverse range to rival any of the above names. Perhaps Maggie Smith should join, given how often she has played royalty on the stage. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson deserve a mention as does Kristen Scott Thomas. Indeed, maybe the quickest thing to do is to have a look through the cast of Harry Potter, as that seems to be where our talented actors are plying their trade these days.
One thing is for sure – it takes more than just talent to make a monarch believable.