Streaming Spotlight: Kings of the screen

A royal rundown of noble performances

by Amber Wilkinson

Richard III
Richard III Photo: Criterion Collection

As it's been Epiphany this week, we've decided to have a royal time of it by shining our Streaming Spotlight on kings at the cinema.

Richard III, Amazon, Apple TV and other platforms

Shakespeare was big on kings and tragedy and he was certainly onto a winner with the scheming of the last Plantagenet king. There have been several adaptations down the years - and the 1995 version with Sir Ian McKellen (also available on Amazon) is well worth looking out for - but Laurence Olivier also nailed it in this earlier version. Olivier, who also directs, sinks his teeth into murderous monarch with a melodramatic glee. The result may be stagey but the stripped back nature of set allows Olivier's performance to shine out with a magnetic intensity that's hard to look away from. The supporting cast is also packed with the great and the good of British stage and screen, including John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

The Girl King, Chili, Apple TV

Jennie Kermode writes: One of the most influential monarchs of the 17th Century, a renowned intellectual who helped to shape the coming Enlightenment and an architect of the Treaty of Westphalia, Kristina of Sweden had no truck with other people's attitudes to gender, and lived and loved as a king. She's portrayed by Malin Buska in this biopic by Mika Kaurismäki, which sets aside the coyness of earlier portraits to stay true to the individual captured in her own writings. It addresses her influence on Catholicism in the period, her flirtation with Satanism, her interactions with Descartes and her passionate relationship with Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon). Buska gives her a force  of personality still rare in portrayals of modern women, whilst Kaurismäki uses the central story to explore much wider themes around the cultural and political changes taking place across Europe, and to reveal something of the day to day lives of ordinary people. If you're looking for thrills, romance and magnificent costumes then you won't be disappointed, but this film has a lot more going on upstairs than the average historical drama, and it's a fitting tribute to a king with few equals.

Excalibur, Amazon, Apple TV and other platforms

If it's full-blooded Arthurian legend that you're looking for then John Boorman's visually stunning film about the rise of king and his Round Table is hard to beat. Like Olivier with King Richard, Nicol Williams really leans into his performance of Merlin but that's what makes it so mesmerising as the magic of myth and the symbolism of the legend meets the grit of the reality that Boorman creates. With fine supporting turns from the likes of Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson, the whole thing rattles along at such a gallop, you barely have time to notice Nigel Terry's central performance paling somewhat in comparison.

The Lion King, Disney+, Chili and other platforms

The Lion King
The Lion King
There's shades of the Shakespearean about this Disney animation, which in good old fairy tale tradition sees a child trying to cope with the death of a parent in the face of a wicked relative - in this case young cub Simba's scheming Uncle Scar (played with silky sinister vocals by Jeremy Irons). If the plot is Shakespeare meets Grimm, the elements are beefed up with classic Disney traditions, including a couple of comedic sidekicks - meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumba (Ernie Sabella) - and some excellent songs from Elton John and Tim Rice. The film achieves a sweet balance of humour, scares and emotional heft that makes it the perfect comfort watch with a dash of African sunshine for the gloomy winter months.

The King's Speech, Apple TV, Chili and other platforms

The King's Speech
The King's Speech
TFilms about kings are made for noble performances and Colin Firth deservedly took home an Oscar for his sensitive portrayal of George VI as he tried to overcome his stammer with the help of an unorthodox Aussie speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush, who also got a statuette for his trouble). The film's strength are the scenes between the two men, with Firth playing the straight foil to Rush's more comedic character but writer David Seidler also finds plenty of poignancy in the predicament of a king also grappling with the aftermath of his brother's abdication. The film won four Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture.

The Man Who Would Be King, Amazon, Chili and other platforms

The Man Who Would Be King
The Man Who Would Be King
Some are born to royalty and others fall accidentally into it, which is exactly what happens to Sean Connery's ex-British officer Danny, when he is mistaken as the descendent of an ancient warrior king. Connery's enjoyable performance is matched by Michael Caine as his fellow soldier on the make, in this Rudyard Kipling adaptation. John Huston had been planning this for 20 years - originally with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the roles, followed by a succession of other big names, including Robert Redford and Paul Newman - and it was certainly worth waiting for. There's a winning camaraderie between Connery and Caine's Daniel and Peachy and plenty of adventure on offer, with a strong underpinning of satire about British imperialism and the corrupting nature of power.

King Kong, BBC iPlayer

King Kong
King Kong
He may be cinematic rather than real royalty but the original monster ape still rules almost 90 years after he first came to screens. A reworking of Beauty and the Beast, Willis O'Brien's special effects give the ape - and a T-rex - plenty of personality, even if the rest of the acting is delightfully OTT and you have to wait a while for the main event. Fay Wray apparently spent an entire day recording her shrieks for the film - which makes her a scream queen in our book.

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