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Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 24, Number 1, Summer 2009
pp. 34-52 | 10.1353/abs.2009.0008

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The genre of the biopic is defined as encompassing films that "depict the life of a historical person, past or present" and in which the central character's "real name is used" (Custen 5-6). It is a genre whose traits "shift anew with each generation" (6) and the royal biopic, as a sub-section of this genre, is no different. One of the most consistent tropes of the royal biopic since its earliest manifestation in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 has been the study of "the tension between the public duty and private life of the monarch" (10), with a special focus on periods of "instability for the monarchy" (315). The royal biopic perpetuates a range of framing devices common to the genre as a whole, such as emphasis on verisimilitude in costuming and setting, and on the productions' "truth value" (60). There are several biopics that present the lives of the British Royal Family as "the real thing," yet surprisingly, until comparatively recently it was deemed improper to present a living sovereign on stage or in film in dramatic form at all. This belief is tied to the notion that the Monarch is somehow sacred—un-filmable, even.

There has not always been a dearth of cinematic queens. As George Custen points out, "female biopic subjects in the thirties were often queens, corresponding to the star status of the actresses who played them" (102). The resistance to filming the real Elizabeth Windsor, however, forms part of a long tradition that saw the British Royals working to negotiate their place in the popular imagination on their own terms. Most felt strongly, for example, that the existence of the royal system depended on its unknowability, its mystique—and anything that threatened this almost sacred cordon sanitaire surrounding the Royals' private lives was to be resisted at all costs. The advent of the media in the twentieth century nonetheless gave rise to a new relationship between the Royal Family and the public and ushered in a period of re-negotiation on the part of the family who framed and projected the Windsor public image. As Bernd Weisbrod suggests, "[t]he monarchy has always been what it was believed to be, but the monarchy as a media event is of rather recent origin" (238).Royal biopics, from the television "nasties" of the early 1980s and the 1990s through to the cinema-release motion picture The Queen (2005), reflect this change of status—that the British monarchy had become a "media event." This paper argues that, just as definitions of the biopic shift according to the period in which they are made, so the royal biopic has shifted to reveal changing attitudes to the meaning of "royalty" overall. The commonplace re-enactments of the private lives of the Royals within the frames of conventional romance and soap opera that can be witnessed in the Charles and Diana biopics have transformed; in Stephen Frears's The Queen these simple reenactments have become a self-reflexive exploration and recognition of the ineffable qualities of "royalty" and "majesty." Frears's film is one of the few examples of royal biopic to acknowledge that it operates within a dialogic framework when trying to capture that most elusive of all lives—the sovereign "self" (Smith and Watson 3).

Writers about cinema have long debated whether or not film can properly capture characters' "inner lives" (Simonet 51), and theorists about biopics have considered how well-filmed biography can properly capture real lives in any depth at all (Murphy). When people's lives are adapted to the screen, they are subject to the same appraisals and complaints that beset any form of film adaptation in the sense that the viewer can feel let down and betrayed by the film's lack of similarity to its source "text." Robert Stam has said about this process that "[w]ords such as infidelity and betrayal . . . translate our feeling, when we have loved [a source text], that an adaptation has not been worthy of that love" (54). Using Christian Metz's application of Lacanian theory to film, Stam suggests further that audiences read novels, or interpret famous peoples' lives, through their...