Storytellers have been intrigued by queens for centuries. Unlike kings, their female counterparts often represent a universal conflict: that between the desire for a private life, and the duty we all feel to uphold a public persona.
Nowhere is this struggle better portrayed than in Victoria, which stars Jenna Coleman as an independent-minded, proto-feminist Queen Victoria, who sounds and looks like any modern young woman as she struggles with the limitations on her freedom.
To celebrate its return to our screens Sunday (January 14), we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite on-screen female sovereigns. In the words of the inimitable Broad City ladies: Yas, queen!
10. Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy)
Yes, Natalie Portman played a scheming Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl, but in Wolf Hall, Claire brought a humanness to the unfortunate girl who risked everything to become Henry VIII‘s second queen. Anne lost, of course, and Claire’s spiky performance makes Anne’s final, terrified moments on the scaffold difficult to watch.
9. Queen of Narnia (Tilda Swinton)
With her frosty demeanour and translucent beauty, Tilda is perfectly cast as Jadis, the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia series of films. A former queen of the city of Charn, she ruled Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), and popped up in Prince Caspian (2008) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) too.
8. Queen Victoria (Judi Dench)
Dame Judi plays an older Victoria, not once but twice, in two separate films. The first was 1997’s Mrs Brown, which told the story of the queen’s relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown (Billy Connolly) after the sudden death (spoiler alert, Victoria fans!) of her beloved Prince Albert, and the second was last year’s unofficial sequel, Victoria & Abdul.
7. Mary, Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave)
The split between woman and monarch is pretty clear in this 1971 film about Mary Stuart (Vanessa Redgrave) and her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson). The former role is about to be played by Saoirse Ronan in an upcoming film of the same name, but she’s got a hard act to follow.
6. Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst)
Sofia Coppola‘s 2006 film about the doomed French queen dispenses with historical accuracy in favor of giddy visuals and an early 80s New Romantic soundtrack. It’s safe to say Marie Antoinette does not come off well in history books, but Kirsten’s fresh and memorable performance humanizes her as young and naive.
5. Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor)
Dame Elizabeth may not have resembled the real Cleopatra much, but her portrayal of the Egyptian queen remains the most iconic. At the time of its production, Cleopatra was the most expensive film ever made, nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox when it failed to make a profit, and leading Elizabeth herself to refer to it retrospectively as her career low. That said, to this day, for many people… she IS Cleopatra.
4. Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren)
We’ve always known Dame Helen had an air of royalty, even before she donned that wig and those plastic frames. When the queen’s erstwhile daughter-in-law Princess Diana is killed, not only is she forced to choose between family and protocol, but she must also acknowledge a change in public sentiment toward the monarchy. Unsurprisingly, Dame Helen swept the 2006 awards season, picking up an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, AND a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for this role.
3. Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)
Dame Helen may have been the original Queen (after Her Majesty the actual Queen, of course), but Claire Foy has brought another side to the role in The Crown — specifically, a younger one. Like Jenna in Victoria, Claire plays the U.K.’s current queen in her youth, when she was newly married and newly crowned. The two institutions do constant battle within her, and she is often at odds with either her husband (Matt Smith) or the crown. And next time we compile such a list, we’ll have Olivia Colman to add to it.
2. Queen Christina (Greta Garbo)
Greta Garbo created the template for any actress who wears a movie crown: in this 1933 film, she portrays Queen Christina of Sweden as unassailably cool, soft and steely all at once. No-one has ever been more imperious on screen.
1. Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett)
Cate played the Virgin Queen as both a young woman and an established monarch in 1998’s Elizabeth and its 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. She delivers a powerhouse performance in both, portraying the queen as simultaneously naive, defiant and shrewd.
Is there a great on-screen queen we’ve missed?