Prep for the nuptials with a royal film festival

| Sunday, April 10, 2011

At some point, you may find yourself wondering: Why is the royal family interesting again• What makes these royals more compelling than, say, the Kansas City Royals baseball club?

Well, the English monarchy have been among the world's major power brokers for millenia, with all the political, romantic and deadly intrigue that comes with that territory. Obviously, any number of books could tell you the story. But you can get a sense of the royals' tumultuous history and major characters by watching a handful of exceptionally well-made movies.

If the whole royal wedding mania leaves you cold, keep in mind that the current-day British royals are pretty dull compared to some of their historical counterparts.

You can watch them in historical order, from "The Lion in Winter" (King Henry II -- 1182) to "The King's Speech" (pre-World War II). Or simply start with the best.

"The King's Speech" (2010): On the eve of World War II, the throne is vacant and the one guy in line who is temperamentally suited, George VI (Colin Firth), has a problem -- he can't speak in public without stuttering. He realizes this isn't the way to project strength and confidence to a people who need to stand up to Nazi Germany, but is stuck, until his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) drags him to see a very unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). It proved to be the heavyweight champion of this year's Academy Awards.

"The Lion in Winter" (1968): In 1183 A.D., King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is about to choose a successor to the throne from his three sons. His imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), his mistress and her brother, King Philip of France, all have their own ideas about who should be in charge. Classic, iconic performances from all-time Hollywood royalty.

"The Queen" (2006): Helen Mirren plays Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II -- pretty much a perfect casting choice -- as she struggles with her role in a time when everything seems to be changing. In the wake of Princess Diana's death, the Queen -- of the stoic, stiff-upper-lip World War II generation -- refrains from the undignified displays of emotion that the heartbroken public demands. Newly elected prime minister Tony Blair tries to convince her that the continued viability of the monarchy is at risk if she refuses to comfort her people.

"The Young Victoria" (2009): A lesser-known, but brilliantly acted and beautifully shot biographical sketch of the royal we know best as a very old, prim and proper queen, this Victoria (Emily Blunt) is depicted as a very young, but smart and self-confident woman who skillfully navigates a maze of powerful family and advisers to get what she wants.

"The Madness of King George" (1994): The King that fought back against America's quest for independence battled a slow descent into insanity. This film offers an oddly sympathetic portrait, as King George struggles to keep his faculties while his advisers fight to amass regal power to further their ends.

"Elizabeth" (1998): Queen Elizabeth the First, played with icy resolve by Cate Blanchett, became one of the most powerful women the world has ever known in a time when women rarely controlled their own destinies. In the mid-1500s, Elizabeth fought off assassination attempts and power grabs by many rivals and chose to ignore the advisers who wanted her to marry. She ended up ruling England for 45 years, and an entire era of history now bears her name.

"The Other Boleyn Girl" (2008): The Boleyn girls -- winsome, guileless Mary (Scarlett Johannson) and complex, headstrong Anne (Natalie Portman) -- couldn't be more different. Their father, Sir Thomas, marries off Mary to a merchant, saving Anne for a match that would better serve the family's waning fortunes. Then, the family's powerful relative, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) arrives, bearing news that the queen is barren, and the king may be in the market for a mistress.

Sir Thomas volunteers Anne to seduce the king (Eric Bana), who arrives at the Boleyn estate and falls from his horse, injured and embarassed by Anne. Mary helps nurse his body -- and ego -- back to health. But Anne is used to being underestimated. By the time she's finished, King Henry VIII will have forsaken his queen, his mistress, the Catholic Church and the popular will of his people.

"The Tudors" (2007-present): This four-season Irish-Canadian television series offers the reign of Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his rejection of his wife in favor of Anne Boleyn and the consequent break with the Catholic Church. Aired in the United States on Showtime, the pay-cable levels of sex and violence complement its lavish costume budget.

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