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Recalling how popular British historical movies and TV shows are among Americans, “The Crown” is a reminder of this. Even still, even the most die-hard BBC fan will find it difficult to keep up with everything. Why are you speculating about Elizabeth I after watching her tribulations as queen in “The Crown?” Or perhaps you’d prefer to go even further in the past?
We’ll always be here for you, even though I’m a Brit residing in the United States. A primer on over a thousand years of British history through the mediums of film and television is here.
1. The Lion in Winter
In 1183, the Christmas court of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine is the setting for the renowned historical picture “The Lion in Winter.” Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn (who shared the best actress Oscar with Barbra Streisand) have an electric chemistry as a fighting king and queen in this refined adaptation from the Broadway play by James Goldman. The dirt and bloodshed of medieval England can be seen in their relationships, which have an earthiness and intensity to them. Even if you were born into royalty, life may be unpredictable.
Long before the 2014 referendum on independence, Scotland had been fighting against English authority. Swords and pillaging, rather than ballots, were used centuries ago to express conflict. William Wallace, a legendary 13th-century Scot who assembled a common army to fight against the English king, is central to the epic “Braveheart,” released in 1995. When it comes to the mystique of the freedom fighter, none do so much as Mel Gibson. The actor is not only the director and producer, but also stars as Wallace himself. Wallace is Albion’s cinematic hero with the most grit, heart, and length of hair. For those who are curious about additional depictions of Scotland on film, we’ve compiled a list.)
3. The Hollow Crown
Modern film adaptations of Shakespearean comedies and tragedies (such “10 Things I Hate About You” or Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”) have been as bold as Shakespeare was in his reinterpretations of preexisting love stories and adventure tales. He has had a tendency to get straight adaptations of his rich and particular plays that deal with medieval history, often for a small audience.
A lavish BBC miniseries, “The Hollow Crown,” based on multiple historical plays and executive produced by Sam Mendes, aired in 2012, remaining true to its original material but also appealing to a broad, contemporary audience of viewers. Ben Whishaw portrays King Richard II as a cross between Jesus Christ and Michael Jackson in the first of four star-studded episodes. ‘Richard II’ begins in 1398 and follows King Richard II’s final two years, during which he makes a series of catastrophic decisions that ultimately lead to his abdication. “The Hollow Crown” is a must-see if you’re a fan of prestige drama, castles, and major issues about power and divinity.
The Tudor era occupies a disproportionate amount of contemporary British consciousness, but that’s understandable. There were kings who beheaded two of their six wives, siblings who locked each other up, and a lot of gorgeous clothes, to name just a few highlights. The 16th century rulers’ antics in “The Crown” make Princess Margaret’s in “The Crown” seem tame.
4. A Man for All Seasons
Sir Thomas More stands out in the midst of the political turmoil and violence. More was one of Henry VIII’s closest confidants and allies when he sought a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It was unimaginable in the 1530s to secede from the Roman Catholic Church and form the Church of England. In the face of certain death, More refused to compromise on his ideals and beliefs, as depicted in the 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons,” which is a poignant portrayal of how the court fell in line with the monarch. Paul Scofield, who played More on stage, reprises his role in the film adaptation, and it’s a memorable performance.
5. Wolf Hall
Cromwell, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of the divorce of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, at least in the short-term. ‘Wolf Hall’ is a prestige drama about a Tudor driven by power rather than conviction. Hilary Mantel’s best-selling historical novels have inspired a lavish BBC miniseries that follows the rise and fall of Cromwell and Anne Boleyn’s fortunes. Claire Foy’s Boleyn and Mark Rylance’s Cromwell are both terrifying in their portrayals of the Tudors’ ruthless rulers.
Small-screen accounts of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn can be found in “The Tudors,” which featured an absurdly young Henry and much of royal romping.
Although she could not take authority away from the men, Boleyn would have been pleased to know that her daughter Elizabeth ruled England for nearly 50 years without having a husband. “Elizabeth” begins before she becomes queen and when her sister, Mary, still reigns. Stunning Cate Blanchett plays the young princess, who must break out of prison and unify a society torn apart by religious differences. Romance, beautiful clothes, and unforgettable settings are all part of a well executed historical drama in the film. When Elizabeth becomes queen, she proclaims, “I will have one mistress here, and no master.” Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the 2007 sequel, is only worth seeing if you loved the first film, “Elizabeth.”
Let we fast-forward a few centuries now.. A massive slave trade flourished in the late 18th century as England began its globe exploration in earnest during the Tudor era. By then, it had colonized many continents and had established colonies on many more. While “Underground” and “Twelve Years a Slave” bring current audiences to American plantations, the film “Belle” imagines a kid born in the British West Indies who was born between the racial ranks of slavery.
Rare 1778 painting of two young noblewomen, one white and the other mixed-race, shows Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a slave lady. After being transferred to live with her father’s aunt and uncle, Dido learns the hard way what it means to be both privileged and marginalized as a child in “Belle.” Filmmaker Amma Asante utilizes her lovely historical piece to focus on the racism of the time and the modern limits placed on women’s lives, especially noble women’s lives, as Dido’s amorous interests develop.
8. The Young Victoria
Queen Victoria held the record for the longest reign of any British queen until her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II shattered it in 2015. Britain became an industrialized nation and empire under her reign, which lasted from 1837 to 1901. As far as I know, she wasn’t even in the picture. Throughout her senior years, Victoria remained “not amused” by her husband’s death. “The Young Victoria” serves as a reminder that everyone was once a teenager, just like Victoria was when she was crowned.
For all its star power, “Princess Diana” is a more depressing tale than “Elizabeth,” which depicted the princess as an empowered young woman fighting for her own survival. In spite of this, the tale is engrossing. We see the beginnings of the connection that would define her life: her love for her first cousin, Albert, in the magnificent period clothing and regal music (Rupert Friend).
9. Mrs. Brown
In “Victoria & Abdul,” Judi Dench portrays Queen Victoria as she was in her late-life connection with a young man from India, which was under British authority at the time. There is a “comforting but ultimately unconvincing tale of cross-cultural understanding,” according to the New York Times review. No matter, because Dench already portrayed Victoria in a contentious post-Albert friendship film 20 years prior. Moreover, it’s a real treat.
“Mrs. Brown” was originally intended for British television, but it ended up being released theatrically and nominated for two Oscars. There’s an intimacy to the bereaved queen’s connection with her rugged, Scottish servant John Brown because of the low-budget production and absence of Hollywood glitz. Brown is played by comedian Billy Connolly, who is endearingly sarcastic, and the film is unexpectedly moving in its depiction of the isolation that comes with bereavement.
Early 20th Century
A generation of young men was wiped off by the First World War, which was a tragedy of ridiculous proportions. The good news is that in every situation where tragedy strikes, there is also the potential for humor. The final episode of the sitcom “Blackadder” perfectly conveys the dreary reality of trench life. Many well-known British actors take on the roles of historical figures as part of this renowned series, which follows the misanthropic Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) and his servant-turned-sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson).
Blackadder and his comrades are in the trenches, plotting to escape the front line in the last part. Ben Elton and Richard Curtis take aim at the British generals who ordered troops to march slowly and directly at German machine guns during the war that cost the lives of almost 3 million Britons. In “Blackadder,” people’ proximity to death, rat-infested dirt, and food shortages are used to create a comedy that is both hilarious and heartfelt.
11. Lawrence of Arabia
It’s maybe not strange, then, that the most acclaimed film depicting the British in World War One takes place far from home. The story of T.E. Lawrence, an English soldier and diplomat dispatched to Arabia in 1916 to serve as a link between Arabs and British forces fighting the Ottoman Empire, is told in “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Lawrence,” directed by David Lean and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Omar Sharif, is a massive epic. While the film is riddled with historical mistakes, the stunning photography makes it easy to get lost in the story.
Late 20th Century
12. Bloody Sunday
As Northern Ireland’s republican, almost entirely Catholic minority sought unification with the Republic of Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century, the conflict over Britain’s relationship with the province — known as “The Troubles” — often took the form of violence. 14 demonstrators were killed by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972, an event known as “Bloody Sunday.” Both parties have long argued about the underlying causes: It’s a dead heat. So, was there a real lack of violence among the demonstrators? In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron issued an apology for the shootings.
Paul Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” is clearly in favor of the protesters. Re-enactment of the 2002 film uses hundreds of extras who participated in the original march. James Nesbitt portrays an Irish civil rights leader full of hope that the British will be forced to leave Northern Ireland. Throughout the film, Greengrass (who went on to use similar strategies in later films, such “United 93” and “Captain Phillips”) is adept in conveying the argument that, whatever assertions are made, the death toll speaks for itself.
In the 1970s, English marginalized groups were also pushing for more freedom. There was an increase in the number of anti-establishment movements in the early part of the decade because of the economic downturn. It’s a six-part miniseries called “Guerrilla” that looks at London’s black-power scene. Activists Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) are inspired to take action after the death of a friend by a police officer in the film’s opening scene. Author John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) has created a series that depicts a complex and broken revolutionary movement that frequently fights against itself as much as the British authority.
14. Billy Elliot
Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979. She campaigned on limiting the authority of labor unions as a means of bringing prosperity to the United Kingdom. Her administration closed numerous coal mines in the north of England in 1984, prompting a massive strike by the unions that worked in those mines. According to the BBC, it was “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history.” Families were already trying to make ends meet.
In Billy Elliot, the heart of the plot is the coal miner father and older brother’s decision to go on strike and what that means for their son’s dreams of becoming a ballerina. Rock music and adorable children make this coming-of-age film an absolute tearjerker.
15. The Queen
Overall, the public’s opinion of Queen Elizabeth II is favorable. When Princess Diana died in 1997, that popularity was put to the ultimate test. Long before her divorce from Prince Charles a year earlier, the “people’s princess” had a tense relationship with the royal family. Her untimely demise further enhanced the public’s perception of her perfection, and the queen’s response to her death became a hotly debated topic.
While watching Michael Sheen’s portrayal of a dissatisfied Prime Minister Tony Blair in “The Queen,” which was released in 2006, it’s easy to understand his dismay at the Royal Family’s steadfast refusal to share their grief with the public. After Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Elizabeth in “The Crown” and “This Is Spinal Tap,” the next Elizabeth is going to have a tough act to follow in the season around Diana’s death.