The Queen on film: The best movies and documentaries exploring her reign and life

·5-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

For a monarch who, by most measures, was the most famous person in the world during her reign, our knowledge of QueenElizabeth II’s personal life remains fairly scant.

Over the decades, however, some documentaries gave us a peek behind the curtain, offering a glimpse of the rarely seen side of a woman known chiefly for her public persona.

Here, we’ve rounded up the best films dedicated to the Queen, most of which are documentaries, but with some that stray into fiction, yet still offer a fascinating insight into Her Majesty’s life.

Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s)

The later Roger Michell, best known for directing Notting Hill, weaved a tapestry of archive footage for this 2022 documentary, his final filmic work. Released for the Platinum Jubilee, it is hardly revelatory — all of this material had been out in the public domain — but it is stitched together in such a way to offer a broad survey of both the Queen’s brightest and rather less bright moments, covering pretty much all of her major milestones on the throne.

The Queen

Playing the Queen in this 2006 biographical film became a career-defining moment for Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance. It’s a role Mirren has never been able to quite shrug off – she was just so convincing as our head of state – and in an Instagram post shared shortly after news of the Queen’s passing broke, the actress wrote: “I am proud to be Elizabethan. We mourn a woman, who, with or without the crown, was the epitome of nobility.” Written by Peter Morgan (now the showrunner of The Crown) and starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair and James Cromwell as Prince Philip, the film focused on the drama around Princess Diana’s 1997 death.

Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen

While Michell’s documentary relied on previously broadcast footage, this affectionate BBC documentary from earlier this year benefits from access — granted by the Queen — to a trove of rare and unseen home videos locked away in the vaults of the BFI. With material dating all the way back to the 1920s, it shows a family as exactly that, rather than the public figures bound by formality we so often see.

A Queen Is Crowned

Currently available on Amazon Prime, this 1953 documentary, written by English poet and playwright Christopher Fry and narrated by Laurence Olivier, recounts the events of the Queen’s 1953 coronation. It was released the same year and was nominated for an Oscar. For more on that momentous occasion, there’s also the recently released documentary The Queen’s Coronation in Colour, which can be found on ITV Hub.

Queen of the World

This 2018 documentary focuses on the Queen and her family’s work with the Commonwealth nations, but most fascinating is the behind-the-scenes glimpses it gives of the younger royals — from Prince Harry joking sweetly about getting nervous whenever he bumps into his grandma in the corridors of Buckingham Palace, to Meghan Markle discussing how her own wedding dress was directly inspired by the Queen’s.

Elizabeth R

BAFTA award-winning filmmaker Edward Mirzoeff directed this acclaimed 1992 documentary for the BBC. Mirzoeff was known for celebrating Englishness in his work, and so what could be a more perfect subject matter? The all-access film was created to celebrate the Queen’s 40th year on the throne (her Ruby Jubilee) and reportedly pulled in a record-breaking number of viewers. It was the first documentary given the royal seal of approval since 1969’s Royal Family, too.

The Queen’s Green Planet

A thoroughly pleasant watch from 2018, in which David Attenborough is invited by the Queen into the garden of Buckingham Palace where the duo chat, unsurprisingly, about nature. It’s one of those rare experiences we get of the Queen in a rather more unguarded mood, and has some lovely moments — not least when she realises her sundial has been placed in the shade. “Did we think of that?” she asks someone off-camera, evidently tickled.

Elizabeth and Margaret: Love and Loyalty

The tight bond between the Queen and her younger sister Princess Margaret has been well-documented over the years, and this 2020 film focuses solely on their personal connection. It is a portrait of something many of us can relate to — the relationship between siblings — but which, in this royal guise, is something entirely unique.

The King’s Speech

This 2010 film is dedicated to the Queen’s father, King George VI (played by Colin Firth), and his struggle to overcome a stammer, but the young Princess Elizabeth does make an appearance. It’s a small role, handled by actor Freya Wilson, and doesn’t give any great insight into the Queen’s early years, but the film itself is certainly worth a watch — as its four Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay suggest.

The Longest Reign: The Queen and Her People

This documentary, which was uploaded to BBC iPlayer shortly after news of the Queen’s passing, explores the massive social, political and technological changes that took place over the 70 years of turbulent British history that were the Queen’s reign, and reflects on how she was the one constant throughout it all.

The Queen And I

The film, also recently uploaded to iPlayer, is a collection of anecdotes from people who have met the Queen, with a particular focus on her presence at a time of tragedy, such as after the 1966 Aberfan disaster, or following the 7/7 bombing in London. It includes words from a wide range of citizens, from a fishmonger to Tony Blair, to those receiving honours from the monarch. There’s an interview that goes as far back as 1938, too, reminding us of her longevity and constancy.