Sensations of the Past: Identity, Empowerment, and the British Monarchy Films

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Royal bio-pics have always enjoyed a high priority among cinematic representations of British history and taken a lion’s share in defining Britishness to audiences at home and abroad. These historical narratives never render national identity by capturing the past of historians, instead reconstruct the past as a mirror of contemporary reality and in a way as to satisfy their audience’s demand for both romantic qualities and antiquarian nostalgia, for sensations they regard their own. The author’s basic assumption is that such cinema does not represent history but exploits spectatorial desire for a mediated reality one inhabits through the experience of an empowered identity. The first part of the article examines how private-life films (a subgenre of royal bio-pics) mythologized and idealized Tudor monarchs in the 1930s, while in the second part, contemporary representatives of the subgenre are analysed as they portray the challenges of the Monarchy in its search for a place within modern British identity politics. Analysed films include The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939), Mrs Brown (John Madden, 1997), The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006), and The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010).1

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