With the release of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s excellent historical psychodrama fable Spencer — an imagining of the inner world of Princess Diana during a fateful Royal weekend in 1990 — here are three famous historical figure movies that also take the opportunity offered by film to explore the psychology of their characters as relatable people facing relatable challenges beyond the glare of the flashes of the press packs.
THE ART HOUSE ESSENTIAL:
The Favourite — Rent or buy from Apple TV+
Olivia Colman gives an Oscar-winning performance as 18th century Queen Anne in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkly comic revenge tale set in the world of the English court.
Anne is a little childish, a little overweight and very hard to play for the servants and sycophants who surround her. When a new enchanting but conniving servant Abigail (Emma Stone) wangles her way into the Queen’s circle, she proceeds to quietly unleash absolute havoc as she drives a wedge between the Queen and her most trusted friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz).
Filmed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan with a distortion- creating fish-eye lens that casts an absurd eye on the proceedings, it’s a lushly realised piece of period intrigue carried by its strong sense of black humour and an excellent cast who thoroughly enjoy themselves in all the chaos as they trade black-barbed insults and up the stakes on their attempts to destroy each other.
It’s Lanthimos’ easiest to watch film, but it’s still squarely focused on his long running interest in the darker side of human nature and the lengths that we go to ensure our own self-interest. Yes it’s easy to laugh at the sheer bitchiness on display, but it’s all so relentlessly destructive that sometimes you might catch yourself crying in despair too.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC:
The Iron Lady — Showmax
Meryl Streep’s Oscar winning performance as the wicked witch of 20th century politics, Margaret Thatcher, is the standout reason to watch this film, which follows the former British Prime Minister in her lonely old age as she reflects on her glory days.
While Thatcher is these days often remembered with bile and bitterness for her ruthless economic policies, which destroyed working class life and decimated the nation’s industrial sector, she was also a pioneering woman who broke through a glass-ceiling to blaze a trail for women in politics around the world.
Writer Abi Morgan’s screenplay gives her a more human side by focusing on her early struggles as the daughter of a shopkeeper who dedicatedly slaved for years to enter the male-dominated world of Conservative Party politics, with her beloved husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), faithfully supporting her.
Thankfully both Morgan and Streep don’t shy away from the many less-than-likable aspects of Thatcher’s personality and the film overall manages to avoid blind hero worship in favour of creating a complex portrait of a difficult and often flawed women whose achievements remain significant in spite of her personality.
The scenes involving her twilight years in which she hears voices and is visited by the ghost of her husband are particular moving for the way in which they reduce the Iron Lady to a frail, solitary and confused elderly woman who, though she once ruled the world, can now barely make it out of her house to buy a bottle of milk.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Bandit Queen — Amazon Prime Video
A rousingly inspirational biopic that tells the powerful story of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) a young, lower caste woman subject to awful sexual abuse by a litany of terrible men, who went on to become a notorious criminal and finally a powerful politician in her native India.
Shekhar Kapur’s unflinching depictions of Devi’s hardships and abuse are contrasted with the epic beauty of the country she finds herself forging a new path through and her inspirational determination to not allow herself to be defined by the hardships she’s experienced, but rather use them as fire for her rebellion against caste, gender and class discrimination.
Devi herself later disowned the depiction of her in the film, but her on-screen version stands as something larger than its subject and offers a strong indictment of the treatment of women in a horrifyingly indifferent patriarchal society.
By the time she takes up her gun and gathers together her gang of revenge-fuelled rebels, you’re rooting for her to succeed and kill every last one of the bastards she’s been wronged by.