An inscrutable monarch, endlessly scrutinized onstage and onscreen
By Sarah Lyall
She was the most opaque of celebrities, a silent film star somehow thriving in a TikTok world. If no one except her closest friends and family knew what Queen Elizabeth II was really like, that’s exactly how she wanted it.
Her regal reserve, her impassive expressions, her resistance to personal revelation — all of it made the queen, who died Thursday at 96, an irresistible object of imaginative speculation. She was an outline of a woman that people could fill in however they fancied. And fill it in they did. Over the years, Elizabeth was a character in an endless stream of feature films, made-for-TV movies and television series — biopics, satires, dramas, comedies, you name it — as well as in the occasional documentary, play, musical and novel.
Her life was remarkable for being long, her reign remarkable for encompassing so much history. But no one was beheaded, no one was plotted against, no one was imprisoned in a tower. Dramas about her predecessors in the job — Elizabeth I, Henry V, Henry VIII, Richard II, to name a few — are full of grand plots and high stakes. Dramas about Elizabeth II were more inward-looking, all trying to address the tantalizing and unanswerable question about her: What sort of person was she?
The actors who have wrestled with that issue are too many to count. “The Crown” alone needed three women to portray Elizabeth at different eras of her life: Claire Foy in her early life, Olivia Colman in the middle years and Imelda Staunton as the queen in winter.
Here are some additional highlights of the portrayals of Elizabeth on film and onstage, and occasionally in fiction, over the years.
Elizabeth’s early years were marked by two cataclysmic events: her uncle King Edward VIII’s abdication, in 1936, from the throne, which automatically catapulted her fragile father into the job of king and put her next in the line of succession; and World War II, which took place when she was still a teenager.
In “The King’s Speech” (2010), the young Princess Elizabeth, played by Freya Wilson, appears briefly in the backdrop of the drama about the efforts of her father, now King George VI, to overcome his stutter and address the nation with confidence and authority when Britain enters the war, in 1939. (The real-life queen was said to have found the movie “moving and enjoyable.”)
“A Royal Night Out” (2015) takes place amid the euphoria of V-E Day in London in 1945. Sprung from Buckingham Palace to mingle, incognito, with the ecstatic crowds, Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her younger sister, Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), indulge in a wild night of drinking, dancing, flirting, wading in a fountain and riding a city bus.
In an effort to demystify themselves that they later regretted, the Windsors in 1969 were the subjects of a 90-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary, “Royal Family.” Watched by 37 million Britons, it included scenes in which Prince Philip attempted to cook sausages on a barbecue, Prince Charles went water-skiing and the queen fed carrots to her horses. The queen later ordered that the movie never be broadcast again, deciding that it had shed perhaps too much light on her family.
The Diana Years
The queen makes endless appearances in the countless dramas devoted to the disastrous marriage between her son Charles and his wife Diana, the Princess of Wales. Usually her job is to express horror at their dysfunction or register disapproval on how their unroyal behavior is affecting their children, their family and the monarchy.
Choice examples of this genre include “Princess in Love,” a trashy film about how Diana cheated on Charles with James Hewitt, an army captain, much to the dismay of the queen (Lisa Daniely). There is also “Whatever Love Means,” an equally trashy account of the adulterous romance between Prince Charles and his former girlfriend and future wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, in which the queen is played by Stella McCusker. Most recently, “Spencer” (2021), starred Kristin Stewart as a mentally fragile Diana and featured Stella Gonet as Elizabeth, by turns alarmed and uncomprehending as her daughter-in-law unravels before her eyes.
And before “The Crown” there was Stephen Frears’ film “The Queen” (2006) set in the bewildering days when Britain erupted in grief and anger following Diana’s shocking death in a car accident, in 1997. The reticent, tradition-bound Elizabeth, played by Helen Mirren, is shown struggling with her private anguish as she is forced over and over again to bow to national pressure and express herself in public.
The Queen Onstage
Later, Mirren would reprise her role onstage in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” (2013), playing the queen over the course of 60 years as she talks politics and other matters with a succession of prime ministers at their scheduled weekly meetings.
Prunella Scales made a sudden, witty appearance as the queen in Alan Bennett’s one-act play “A Question of Attribution” (1988), about Anthony Blunt, Elizabeth’s “surveyor of pictures” — essentially the curator of her art collection — who was later exposed as a Soviet spy.
The Queen in Comedy
Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine that the behind-closed-doors queen is in fact full of mischief and spontaneity? In “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988), Elizabeth (Jeannette Charles, whose uncanny resemblance to the real monarch kept the roles coming over the years) for some reason attends an Angels-Mariners baseball game at Dodger Stadium. She throws out the first pitch, takes part in The Wave and is saved from an assassination plot when Leslie Nielsen’s character, in a huge break with royal protocol, wrestles her down and shields her with his body.
Charles reprised her role as Elizabeth in other movies, including “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), in which she meets Chevy Chase in a reception line in a dream sequence, and spy spoof “Austin Powers in Goldmember” (2002), in which she knights the title character, played by Mike Myers.
On “Saturday Night Live” in the 2010s, Fred Armisen imagined the queen as a swaggering, foul-mouthed East End gangster. Deploying a Cockney accent, his Elizabeth threatens and menaces Kate Middleton, newly engaged to Prince William, the minute the prince leaves the room. (Bill Hader played the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, as equally pugilistic.)
As Royal Grandmother
The younger generation of the royal family has featured in numerous ripped-from-the-headlines TV melodramas. The romance between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for instance, has been the subject of three Lifetime TV films (so far). Actor Maggie Sullivan played the queen for each of those.
In another Lifetime movie, “William & Catherine: A Royal Romance” (2011), Jane Alexander did the honors as the queen, adjusting to her grandson’s decision to marry a commoner.
The Queen as a Literary Character
One of the huge questions about the queen has been what her imaginative life was like, beyond her well-known interests in things like dogs and horses. In his winsome novella “The Uncommon Reader,” British writer Alan Bennett conjured an alternative reality in which Elizabeth happens upon a mobile library outside Buckingham Palace, and it changes her forever.
At first, she reads easier books by authors like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Nancy Mitford. Soon she is tackling Proust, discussing Jean Genet with the president of France and delving into biographies of Sylvia Plath. She finds that reading gives her a better understanding of other people and, paradoxically, allows her to lose herself into anonymity and solitude.
“She who had led a life apart now found that she craved it,” Bennett writes. “Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized.”
The Queen as Herself
It was the perfect expression of Elizabeth’s rare ability to be everywhere at once without giving herself away, and the tiniest glimpse into her understated sense of humor. As the world watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it found, to its delight, that the queen was playing along.
A brief film that helped tee off the ceremony opened with James Bond (a black-tie-wearing Daniel Craig) bustling into Buckingham Palace, dodging several royal corgis and entering the office of the monarch. She was at her desk, resplendent in pink. “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” she said.
The two then flew by helicopter across London and parachuted into Olympic Stadium — Elizabeth, unsurprisingly, had a stunt double for that part — before the film ended. And then the real queen, in the same pink outfit, regally took her seat as the audience in the stadium roared its delighted approval. Perhaps she was touched or thrilled; it was impossible to know.
Her face was utterly impassive.