Cinema’s Cinderella Syndrome

The stereotypical portrayal of female royalty in films

Lacey Chabert and Stephen Hagan in “A Royal Christmas” (2014)

Browse the rom-com section of any streaming service at this time of year and you will find no shortage of films about young women marrying into royalty. In A Royal Christmas (2014), a humble seamstress from Philadelphia marries the heir to the throne of Cordinia, a fictional fiefdom somewhere in the vicinity of Monaco. In A Christmas Prince (2017) and its sequels, a humble New York blogger called Amber marries the heir to throne of Aldovia, and in The Princess Switch (2018) and its sequels, a humble Chicago pâtissière called Stacy marries the Crown Prince of Belgravia. Please note: this is not Belgravia, London SW1, but – like Aldovia – a fictional kingdom on the border between Romania and Ukraine. I look forward to further sequels in which Amber and Stacy throw open the doors of their royal palaces to refugees.

In other words, marrying a prince is every girl’s dream. It’s the Cinderella Syndrome – a life of instant glamour, wealth and power, and all you have to do is be the sort of girl a prince falls in love with, though obviously it helps if you can engineer some sort of meeting. Luckily I was obliged to relinquish my own dreams of princesshood at the age of six, having realised there would be no room in our easily confused nation for more than one Princess Anne.

With royalty comes not just public adoration, but hours of boredom, condescension and eating disorders

But uh-oh, what have we here? Amber and Stacy need to brace themselves, because take a swerve out of Rom-Com Kingdom into Arthouse Republic, and the dream degenerates into a nightmare. Corsage, the new film from Austrian filmmaker Marie Kreutzer, is the latest variation on a theme of Those Poor Royal Women, They Have It So Bad. Elisabeth of Austria, played by the marvellous Vicky Krieps, is enervated by palace life with balding Emperor Franz Joseph I, possessor of the film’s most thrilling accessory – stick-on sideburns that can be peeled from the jowls and stored in a small casket when not in use.

Vicky Krieps in “Corsage” (2022)

Elisabeth (or “Sissi”, as she was known when Romy Schneider played her in the 1950s) is so fed up she fakes fainting spells to weasel out of official visits, inveigles a lady-in-waiting into taking her place (behind a fashionable veil) at a dreary function so she can shoot up smack in a back room, and sets tongues a-wagging by gallivanting off to Hungary or England to dally with simpatico cousins or studly stable hands. One of the wagging tongues, incidentally, is that of her son, Rudolf, nowadays best known for the ultimate gossip-eliciting deed of shooting himself and his mistress at Mayerling hunting lodge… but that’s another film.

Clearly, with royalty comes not just public adoration, inherited glamour (give or take a Habsburg jawline) and the means to acquire fur-trimmed frocks and glittering bling, but hours of stultifying boredom, patriarchal condescension and eating disorders. Only last year, in Spencer, we saw how Sandringham (at Christmas, natch) was transformed into the royal equivalent of The Overlook Hotel, engulfing poor Diana in a sinister cabal of Windsors and their enablers, leaving her so stricken by impenetrable etiquette that she fantasises about swallowing her own pearl necklace (and no, I don’t think that’s intended as innuendo). Admittedly, Diana wasn’t exactly a humble commoner before she met her prince, but she did lead a normal job, kind of, and was not, as far as I know, related to the Habsburgs, thus ensuring a progeny free from mandibular prognathism.

We’ve also been privy to the travails of poor Queen Anne, plagued by gout, misled by devious confidantes, and traumatised by multiple miscarriages in The Favourite (2018). In Mrs Brown (1997), lonesome Queen Victoria is little more than a political pawn who can’t even forge a close friendship her late husband’s Scottish servant without causing proto-tabloid gossip. Even the not-so-lonesome The Young Victoria (2009) finds herself sandwiched between stuffy bigwigs striving to exploit her for their own ends. Marie Antoinette, in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film of the same name, finds her life of luxury at Versailles so stifling she seeks refuge in endless gateaux and a vast collection of fancy footwear, including a deliberately anachronistic pair of Converse sneakers. So trivial and pointless does she find her existence that you wish there were some way of sticking your head into the film, just for a second, to reassure her that life will be a lot less dull after 1789.

Emma Stone in “The Favourite” (2018)

Amid all these restrictions and being treated like a brood mare, the royal women don’t spare much thought for the female subjects who are not just, like them, more or less permanently pregnant, but also afflicted by malnutrition, tuberculosis and STIs. Elisabeth of Austria does occasionally pay royal visits to a psychiatric hospital, but less for charitable reasons than for narcissistic kicks. Commoners don’t really get a look-in, unless they somehow manage to get a royal prince to fall in love with them. Which, let’s face it, is unlikely to happen when they smell because they can’t afford more than one frock, their hair is crawling with lice, they’re pregnant (again!) and half their teeth have fallen out. Where’s your fairy godmother when you need her?

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, December 2022

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