Of all the 20th century’s most celebrated film stars, few had the range of Queen Elizabeth II. Broad comedy, state of the nation dramas, day-glo kids’ animations, claustrophobic quasi-horror: when directors and writers wanted to say something about a UK where things were turning strange, they got the Queen to say it for them.

Her reign wasn’t one Shakespeare would have fancied as source material. Beheadings? Zero. Fratricidal wars? Nada. Quests for vengeance against an interloper who killed her dad and married her mum? Thin on the ground.

For a long time on screen she was the same Queen who turns up in anxiety dreams and stares blankly out of the frame of postage stamps, less a flesh-and-blue-blood person than power and hauteur in a tiara. But after Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears’ The Queen in 2006 her reserve and restraint became something more dramatic and rich, and that only sharpened as she aged. In The Crown Claire Foy teased it out to make her an uncertain Queen, looking for a fresh start while desperate to preserve some sense of the past, a cypher for a collapsing, anxious ex-centre of ex-empire.

She wasn’t ‘one of us’; that was the whole point of her. But as a symbol of a country hanging on in quiet desperation, she gave one of the great performances.

To mark the Coronation of King Charles, we thought we'd run through the films that shed the most light on the institution and its leaders.

The Best Movies About The Queen and Royal Family

The Queen (2006)

It’s a mark of quite how much Frears and Morgan – and Helen Mirren – turned the Queen from an empty vessel into a character whose still waters ran so deep that Mirren only needed to flinch here or twitch there to win a deserved Oscar. After the death of Princess Diana, the royals snap to protocol and precedent. But it’s Tony Blair (a brilliant, steely Michael Sheen) and his landslide Labour government which capture the suddenly traumatised mood. Revolution was, briefly, in the air.

Royal Family (1969)

The countercultural headwinds of the Sixties posed some tricky questions for the royals. “Most people care much less [about royalty] than they did,” the Sunday Telegraph said in 1967, “particularly the young, many of whom regard the Queen as the arch-square.” The solution, a fly-on-the-wall documentary offering unprecedented access to the day to day business of monarchy, was seen at the time as making the royals too relatable. The Queen agreed, and Royal Family hasn’t been on TV since 1977. But there’s something endearingly naive and guileless about it now. It’s worth it for the opening shots of Charles fishing in Scotland, riding a bicycle along a normal high street and waterskiing alone.

Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen (1992)

Forty years after taking the throne, another fully approved fly-on-the-wall doc dropped in on the Queen with the idea of getting underneath the veneer. The Queen’s narration does do that, but the unhurried rhythm finds something deeper. There are no awkward family barbecues this time, but a steady stream of functions, parties, portraits, ribbon-cutting, tree-planting, ship-naming and ribbon-cutting turns gradually into an accidental portrait of the tedium which made up her day to day. It’s all a bit Wernham Hogg.

Spencer (2021)

In the decades since Elizabeth R filmmakers have jumped back to the Royals’ nervous Nineties as the big dramatic seam to mine. Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight’s slightly over-egged but charged, spooked script makes hay with it here. The focus is on a single weekend at Sandringham in 1991, where Princess Diana finds herself isolated and unravelling. It’s a chamber piece that has more in common with The Innocents or The Yellow Wallpaper than The Crown. Stella Gonet’s Queen hovers at the edges, but Spencer shows the damage that comes of prioritising The Firm above everything.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts (2022)

Over the last 70 years there have been more than enough archival rummages which piece together the standard run of the Queen’s life – childhood, accession, coronation, Beatles, middle age, Nineties horribilis, nation’s grandma – are ten a penny. This was a more playful and slyly subversive way of celebrating the Platinum Jubilee, knitting together clips you’ll have seen before (lots of waving) with ones you definitely haven’t (Adam Curtis-style interview B-roll; a 1992 trip to Dresden at which she was roundly booed) and a soundtrack running from George Formby to Stormzy. It gets at both the dream of the Queen and the flesh and blood woman it was projected onto.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Part of the ongoing brain-warp of leaving Elizabeth II behind is the fact that her going prises the last of the nation’s fingernails from the idea that we are the same country as the one that defeated fascism. While she was alive you could squint and imagine her a living link to the foundation myth of modern Britain; now it’s slipping from living memory. So while she’s not got top billing in Tom ‘I Also Made Cats’ Hooper’s film about her father George VI (a terrified Colin Firth) struggling to say anything except “bollocks” as war stalks Europe, The King’s Speech sums up that vague sense and plots her place in it.

A Royal Night Out (2015)

On VE Day Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, then 19 and 14, appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony with the King and Queen to wave at the crowds. Soon, they wanted to get in amongst them. This breezy film is something like a very posh version of American Graffiti as the spunky young gals get into romantic scrapes on their big night uptown. They do the conga at the Ritz, Margaret slips into an illegal gambling den and Elizabeth has to go find her. “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life,” the Queen said in 1985. It won’t make for one of the most memorable films of your life, but it’s quite good.

Originally published on Esquire UK