Although the political power of the royal family is waning in our democratic modern age, their prominence in film and television is not. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a veritable flurry of media portrayals of royalty, encompassing a wide range of storylines and figures – with varying results. Success comes in many forms, as films like The King’s Speech have been successful both in terms of critical and audience reception, while others like The Other Boleyn Girl receive a slightly frostier response (Alex von Tunzelmann called it “Hollyoaks in fancy dress” – not exactly a ringing accolade) despite a warm reception at the box office.
On the other end of the spectrum, movies like Diana show that stories about royalty have an equal capacity to flop: even the film’s Wikipedia entry calls its reviews “overwhelmingly negative”, and with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 8%, the bleak facts are hardly contentious.
The appeal of a royal story is on some level irresistible. Movies such as the aforementioned, as well as television series like The Crown, are only a response to a modern audience with an evolving but persistent appetite for stories about kings and queens, princes and princesses. In an age where ‘relatability’ has been much touted as the most powerful currency in the market, it seems strange that narratives about the most exclusive – and thus least relatable – tier of society should have gained and retained such mass appeal. Yet perhaps, on a deeper level, these stories are relatable, and their force lies precisely in the thrill of discovering relatability in the most unlikely places.
From the complicated love-hate-forgive relationship between the Boleyn girls, to the portrayal of all-too-ordinarily-human conflicts and reconciliations in The Crown, behind the lavish costumes, the stories of happiness and pain are the same. From the point of view of the average person sitting in front of their screen on a Friday evening, perhaps with a take-away korma, it is well worth savouring, imagining, or better still, speculating how ‘they’ live. After all, is there anything more appealing than seeing that the elites of society are really just like us?
A film about royalty which is just a history book transmitted onto the screen would not, I venture, be a very good one. In fact, it would probably rival Diana’s Rotten Tomatoes score. As fascinating as the machinations and politics behind royal power may be, these elements alone do not make for entertaining and engaging movies. Instead, it is the human element that continues to fascinate and excite. The Other Boleyn Girl is a good example of this: while the movie (and the book it is based on) could have focused on many other interesting and unique aspects of the Tudor court life, it is the love triangle of Henry, Anne and Mary which is at the core of the film – the kind of dramatic conflicts which could be found in any part of society.
Humans are social creatures, and this is reflected in our viewing habits – we like nothing better than seeing someone else feel our emotions, live out our experiences, share in our sorrow, joy or love. What is appealing is not what makes the royals different from the average viewer, but the human relationships and personal struggles common to all – royal or not. The fundamental existential core of these stories is what pulls viewers back to films about royalty again and again.