Best Movies by Farr: Royal Reels

August 31, 2011 | John Farr

This week, Reel 13 will air The Madness of King George, and to expand your palette of films about royalty, John Farr shares three of his favorite movies about monarchs.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

In this cheeky look at the controversial life and loves of King Henry VIII, Charles Laughton portrays the over-indulgent monarch, who challenged church doctrine by marrying not once but six times. From Anne Boleyn to Anne of Cleves, Henry proves himself to be a haughty conqueror of women, and quite enamored of his power-at least until he meets his match.

Henry VIII’s unusual life has been covered in many films, but this lavish early depiction has its own magic, primarily owing to Laughton’s dynamic, Oscar-winning portrayal, in a role he was born to play. Laughton is ably supported by a dashing Robert Donat as Henry’s cuckolding subject, and the dark and stunning Merle Oberon as the endearingly dim-witted Boleyn.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Hoping to retain his grip on power, 12th-century King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) summons his estranged, exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), for a Christmas Eve meeting with their three sons, Richard the Lion-Hearted (Anthony Hopkins), Prince Geoffrey (John Castle), and Prince John (Nigel Terry), to determine who will succeed to the throne. As Henry and Eleanor lock in a vicious battle of words, the remaining family members-including Henry’s mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and her teenage brother King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton)-try to outmaneuver each other in their quest for dominance.

Shot on location in France and the British Isles, and based on an excoriating play by Richard Goldman, “Lion” is a wit-fueled, magnificently acted parable of power-lust and extreme family dysfunction. O’Toole and Oscar winner Hepburn are superb as the grizzled, sarcastic regent and his cunning wife, locked in a never-ending exchange of venomous criticisms. A youthful Anthony Hopkins, in a spirited turn, pops off some of the best insults. Aside from the endless machinations of various family members, Harvey adds period flavor with authentic costumes and gloomy, tone-perfect settings. When this “Lion” roars, you’ll be hooked.

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997)

With the premature death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in the 1860s, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has withdrawn from her subjects into a period of mourning and seclusion. A Scottish stable worker named John Brown (Billy Connolly), whom Albert had admired, is summoned to the Queen’s service. Brown’s common-sense directness and strength draw her out, and literally and figuratively, place the Queen back on her horse.

“Mrs. Brown” beautifully recounts one of the most unconventional, unlikely romances in history. The close and affectionate friendship that grows between Victoria and lower-class Highlander Brown scandalized Britain then, and will fascinate audiences now. Judi Dench is glorious to watch in a role that gilded her path to Hollywood, and brilliant comic Connolly shows he can act with the best.

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