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Five Movies About Royals to Compete with “The Crown”

Just between us, when it comes to royalty I’m in the off-with-their-crowns camp. But kings and queens nonetheless do the House of Cinema proud: tales of irrational authority make for good drama—and ones of fantastic cultural absurdity make for good comedy. The subject of monarchy is a severe test of directors’ artistry, because the lofty royal way of life and the guarded chambers of power demand extremes of imagination as well as an analytical and unflinching confrontation with power. For many of the greatest filmmakers, royalty gives rise to artistic revelations; for the cinema over all, movies about monarchs are an international counterpart to the American Western, an inescapably and essentially political genre.


Sally Potter’s adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf provides a sumptuous framework for Tilda Swinton’s ethereal virtuosity while showing the twists and turns of one fantastic private life that’s imbued and deformed by the prerogatives and caprices of royal power. That power is first embodied in Queen Elizabeth I—played with quietly gleeful ferocity by Quentin Crisp—who, in 1600, elevates the androgynous young man Orlando to a place by her side. Orlando makes his way through the pressure cookers of the seventeenth century’s absolute rule—including the repudiation of an arranged marriage at court, in favor of an affair with a Russian princess (Charlotte Valandrey) and, in 1700, an ambassadorial posting to Constantinople. Orlando, lurching ahead in half centuries and centuries, never ages, but nonetheless changes: emerging as a woman in the eighteenth century, she confronts a new age of aristocratic authority and then endures its legalistic persecution until, brought up to speed in London in the late twentieth century, she still faces the pomp and cultural primacy of the same damned monarchy. Potter’s ironies, veering between the blunt and the exquisite, the oblique and the confrontational,

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