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Onscreen Queens: Gender disparity in royal biopics

Onscreen Queens: Gender disparity in royal biopics

Prince Harry’s May 19 royal wedding to American actress and activist Meghan Markle is dominating mainstream media and giving royal enthusiasts an excuse to revisit their favorite English stories in preparation for the big day. Though Netflix’s excellent first two seasons of The Crown would be a great place to start, there have been a number of outstanding films made about European royal families.

Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006).

Director Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots is set for a December release, starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart, the Scottish monarch who attempted to overthrow her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (played by Margot Robbie). But there’s a common theme in other royal biopics - they are predominantly written and directed by men, despite often being women’s stories.

The most notable example is the 2006 drama The Queen, which earned Helen Mirren her first Academy Award for playing Queen Elizabeth II. Though the story surrounded the queen’s grappling with the events following Princess Diana’s death, the film was written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.

Emily Blunt played the title role in The Young Victoria in 2009, following the queen who ruled from the time she was 18 until her death at 81. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), the film was written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey aired for six years and told a multitude of female stories that passed the Bechdel-Wallace test, as does The Young Victoria.

Other outstanding actresses have tackled royal roles in solid period films. Judi Dench played Queen Victoria twice, in both Mrs. Brown (1997) and Victoria & Abdul (2017), also directed by Frears. Cate Blanchett was a young Elizabeth I in Elizabeth (1998), Keira Knightley played Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Cavendish in The Duchess (2008), and in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman played sisters Mary and Anne Boleyn in a fictionalized account of their trysts with King Henry VIII. But all of these films were written and directed by men.

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend are Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, now streaming on Netflix.

There is also gender disparity among filmmakers behind biopics outside the British monarchy. Grace of Monaco (2014) is directed by Olivier Dahan and stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly - another American actress who married into royalty. Writer-director Sofia Coppola is the exception with her 2006 feature Marie Antoinette, but her take on the Queen of France was not acclaimed by critics or audiences.

Even The Crown, which is critically acclaimed and has earned numerous Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, has employed only two credited female writer-directors. The series made headlines this spring when it was revealed that Claire Foy was paid less than her co-star Matt Smith despite appearing more frequently in the show’s two seasons.

Female artists have made a certain impact on the royal film front, but they’ve typically been lighthearted comedies like The Princess Diaries (2001) or The Prince and Me (2004) that deal with sweeter, funnier obstacles instead of historical monarchies. Thankfully, Rourke’s upcoming Mary Queen of Scots is a good indication that the landscape for women in film is changing when it comes to serious historical pieces.

© Georgiana Presecky (5/17/18) FF2 Media

Photos courtesy of Scott Rudin Productions, GK Films and Focus Features

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