#1 ELIZABETH 1998
The kind of historical drama that cannot miss. Elizabeth has a wonderful screenplay that is both authentic and yet laden with dialogue most actors would die for. Its Australian content is significant with Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush outstanding. Watch for a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig as an assassin priest.
#2 BECKET 1964
When the English language is written and spoken properly it really is something special; even when it is translated, as in this case, from a play written by a Frenchman. Oh, well. Like most of my favourite pictures, Becket is rich in memorable dialogue and superb acting. Historically, it loses a bit, but as sheer entertainment it is a delight.
#3 SPARTACUS 1960
Some of the set pieces in Spartacus are breath-taking. I especially liked the main battle between the slaves and the Roman legions advancing in squared formation. Script-wise, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton get the best lines, but Dalton Trumbo’s sensational writing was no doubt appreciated by the whole cast. A classic epic, spoiled only by the superfluous romance between Spartacus and Varinia.
#4 CROMWELL 1970
Richard Harris really does have a ‘presence’ on the screen, not unlike Lee Marvin. When either actor is in a scene our gaze seems to gravitate towards them almost in a magnetic fashion. I included Cromwell in my list because of the performance of Harris and that of Alec Guinness who plays King Charles I, and looks more like Charles than Charles did. The critics did not like the movie by the way. I did.
#5 A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS 1966
If ever a man walked a tightrope between the devil and the deep blue sea it was England’s Chancellor Sir Thomas More during the reign of King Henry VIII, and he did so for seven nerve-racking years! Paul Scofield is More in this excellent period drama and fully deserved his Best Actor Oscar. The screenplay showcases the English language in all its glory.
#6 12 YEARS A SLAVE 2013
This is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York State who is kidnapped pre-Civil War and taken south as a slave where he languishes for twelve horrendous years. If Sir Thomas More walked a tightrope with King Henry, Solomon Northup walked one with every white he came in contact with, male or female. A frightening tale.
#7 THE LION IN WINTER 1968
A scintillating screenplay provides ample opportunity for the likes of Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton and John Castle to demonstrate their thespian skills, which they all do by chewing up every piece of scenery in sight. There is an awful lot of yelling in this movie, but it is usually entertaining yelling that has a point. Some great one-liners.
#8 THE DUCHESS 2008
Keira Knightley plays the title role; Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, in this beautifully presented slice of English history. The ever versatile Ralph Fiennes plays her husband and he does it brilliantly. The lifestyle of the landed gentry of the 1770s, particularly their curious approach to lovers, marriage and family will raise eyebrows.
#9 THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL 2008
Just when we thought the love life of King Henry VIII had been done to death, up pops a look at it from another perspective. No doubt there are historians who knew of Anne Boleyn’s sister, but I certainly was not one of them, so Mary Boleyn took me completely by surprise. More tightrope walking – this time it’s the turn of the ladies.
#10 THE CRUCIBLE 1996
Salem, Massachusetts was not the place to be in 1692. A single accusation of witchcraft quickly grew into an epidemic of accusations that led to the deaths of several unfortunates. Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Scofield are always good, but Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams, the primary ‘accuser’ seems out of her depth here. The subject matter has always been intriguing, however.