Queen Victoria in the Movies

I recently finished “Victoria the Queen”, a biography by the Australian writer Julia Baird, published in 2016. Subheaded as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire”, the book brings us close to this iconic monarch and her life, dispelling some myths, and creating a better understanding of her complex nature. This was a woman who didn’t believe women should have the vote, and yet proved to the world just how capable a woman in power could be. Queen Victoria sat on the throne for 63 years and the whole world changed in a way it never had before during those years, not least because of the Industrial Revolution…

In the clip above, Baird talks about her work on the book and what it is about Victoria that she found interesting. Her passion is evident in the pages of the book, which is a riveting read.

One of the many inventions from the Victorian era was film, and the clip above shows the Queen arriving at a garden party in 1898, three years before she died. Unsurprisingly, Victoria has been the subject of films and TV series over the years and there are many different angles to choose from. The earliest screen portrayals of her came only a decade after her death, primarily in the drama Sixty Years a Queen (1913), which was a box-office hit. In the 1930s, Anna Neagle played Victoria in two British films, Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938).

Victoria was sometimes a supporting character in movies that focused on the lives of other famous people from her era, such as Disraeli (1929) and The White Angel (1936; about Florence Nightingale); this also happened in the case of literary figures, as in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Perhaps the most sinister case of using Victoria in a movie (and graphic novel) is From Hell (2001), where the Queen was one of those responsible for the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. There has also been the odd, unexpected casting choice, as Peter Sellers – he played Victoria in the comedy The Great McGonagall (1974).

The traditonal image of Victoria is the forbidding old woman in black, which has become a cliché. The need for a more nuanced and youthful portrait of the Queen has resulted in the fine drama The Young Victoria (2009) and the TV series Victoria (2016- ). The romantic clip above, from The Young Victoria, shows Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Prince Albert. 

However, no one has captured the Queen in mourning and given it such tremendous force the way Judi Dench has in two movies. Mrs. Brown (1997) depicted Victoria’s love affair (because that’s how it must be described) with the Scottish commoner John Brown. Dench returned to the part twenty years later in Victoria & Abdul (2017), which seemed to portray a similar love story later in the Queen’s life, but her relationship with the “Munshi”, an Indian man who came to serve as her secretary, was not at all like what she had with Brown.

Historical figures are often portrayed on screen in unsatsifying ways, but the history of Victoria as a film character is rich – at times traditionally romantic in the Hollywood way, sometimes fairly accurate historically, and sometimes downright silly, in satirical fashion or as a nifty symbolical plot device. We’ll see a lot more of her in the future, I’m sure.

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