There’s nothing like playing the Queen of England to grab the attention of Oscar voters.
Following last week’s nomination for Cate Blanchett’s gloriously hammy monarch in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” English queens have now taken six nods in 14 years — two each for Blanchett (as Elizabeth I twice), Judi Dench (Victoria and Elizabeth I) and Helen Mirren (Charlotte and Elizabeth II).
Since Dench and Mirren both won on their second regal outings, that could be a good omen for Blanchett when the envelope is opened Feb. 24 at the Kodak Theater.
The Virgin Queen must already be the most lauded character in awards history, with Mirren also winning an Emmy for donning the red wig last year, to follow the one for Glenda Jackson back in 1971.
And there’s more to come. A procession of sassy young queens and other famous historical heroines is heading for the big screen. In this age of celebrity, even the genteel world of British heritage cinema has become ruthlessly high concept.
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Producers and financiers are no longer content to do period for period’s sake. They are seeking instantly recognizable brands, preferably with a sexy modern spin, that can give them an edge in the increasingly fierce upscale market. The fashion is for reality, and no brand is more proven than the British royal family, closely followed by Jane Austen and the other queens of Brit lit.
That’s not new, of course. But the success, to varying degrees, of movies such as “The Queen,” “Miss Potter,” “Becoming Jane” seems to have triggered an avalanche. Note the gender skew — this is a market driven by the tastes of older female audiences.
Next month sees the premiere of Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a Focus/Sony/BBC drama starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as Anne and Mary Boleyn, sisters vying for the bed of King Henry VIII. Anne and Henry were, of course, the parents of Elizabeth I.
Johansson must love those Tudor bodices. She starts shooting “Mary Queen of Scots” in April for Capitol and the BBC, playing Elizabeth’s cousin who lost her head plotting for the English throne.
Coming soon, there’s Emily Blunt as “The Young Victoria,” an intriguing attempt by upper-crust Brit writer Julian Fellowes and hip Canadian helmer Jean-Marc Vallee to sex up the image of Blighty’s long-reigning 19th century empress, better known as a dowdy black-clad widow who refused to be amused. The involvement as producers of Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson, the real-life ex-wife of Blighty’s Prince Andrew, promises a heady brew.
The royal connection doesn’t stop there. Keira Knightley is playing Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire — an ancestor of Princess Diana, and billed by the producers as her 18th century equivalent — in Saul Dibb‘s “The Duchess” for Pathe and the BBC.
French-owned Pathe has discovered a renewed enthusiasm for high-concept Brit history pics since making millions worldwide from “The Queen.”
Pathe topper Francois Ivernel says, “We need to start from something people have knowledge of. Period movies are expensive, and they have some restriction in terms of audience, so if they already know the character or the book, this gives them a way in.”
Pathe and the BBC are also working on a movie about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War; “Emma and Nelson,” about the notorious affair between Lady Hamilton and Blighty’s national hero Lord Nelson; Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” about the romance between Fanny Brawne and the poet John Keats; and a fresh take on Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”
Like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Jungle Book” is a pop culture brand that has transcended its literary origins, more familiar to modern auds from previous screen versions than from the book. The same is true of “Brideshead Revisited,” which “Becoming Jane” helmer Julian Jarrold is filming for Miramax/BBC; “Jane Eyre,” another BBC project; and “A Christmas Carol,” which Working Title is developing.
WT blazed the trail for such pop period pics with the original “Elizabeth” back in 1997. According to the book “Launderettes and Lovers,” screenwriter Michael Hirst was working on a biopic of Queen Victoria, but switched to Elizabeth when WT topper Tim Bevan asked him, “For God’s sake, can’t you think of a more exciting monarch?”
These days, it seems, few queens are deemed too dull for the movie treatment. It remains to be seen whether audiences agree.