Great Britain and her citizens value the high drama of their aristocracy in equal measure to how much we Americans value our conquests in war. American audiences look to Hollywood for jingoistic fantasies and (recently) anti-war pictures, just as the Brits seem to crave costume dramas that are alternately revealing and respectful of royalty. The Young Victoria, the most recent addition to this ever-growing category, shares both of those qualities.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Emily Blunt in the title role, The Young Victoria is a sumptuously beautiful drama brimming with visual detail and loveliness. That alone is enough to warrant seeing as it may very well consume you with its lush sights and sounds, but the movie as a whole is so committed to manners and good taste that it rarely brings its characters to proper life.
The early years of Queen Victoria’s rule of England, as portrayed in Vallée’s film, were turbulent at best. Born the only direct ascendant to the throne, Victoria’s manipulative mother (Miranda Richardson) and her dastardly adviser (Mark Strong; currently seen as Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes) plotted all through her childhood how to manipulate the impressionable young woman once she took the throne.
Controlled, cloistered, and endlessly kept behind closed palace doors, Victoria still remained determined not to sign the Regency document that would give her manipulators legal right to the throne. This jealous drama permeates the first few moments of The Young Victoria, but when the queen finally takes her rightful seat on the throne and lays to waste the hopes of her deceptive relatives, her romance with Prince Albert becomes central.
Albert (Rupert Friend) is the nephew of royalty and has been coached by his advisors on how to win Victoria’s favor. His predictable advances annoy Victoria, but the two forge a bond over their equal hatred of manipulation.
“Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself? In a game being played against your will?” Victoria asks. Albert empathizes and gives a searing reply: “You had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.” She grants Albert permission to write to her and though political foibles and less-worthy suitors try to muddy the waters, the two marry and rule the kingdom together.
The cast is perfectly suited to the material and culled from the very best selection of British characters actors (the great Jim Broadbent has an amusing bit part), but Emily Blunt is the main attraction and proves, perhaps for the first time, that she is capable of carrying the soul of a film with dignity and grace. She imbues Victoria with the biting self-confidence necessary for a young woman who is pressed to relent on all sides. Her beauty is beguiling.
The script, on the other hand, is not. Penned by Julian Fellowes, a scribe who seemed so adept at structuring class drama when he wrote Robert Altman’s majestic Gosford Park, “Victoria”’s screenplay is structured through voiceover and monologue by way of letters and correspondence written between the historical figures that populate the narrative. It’s a neat trick, but one that gets old after the tenth or eleventh time.
Consequently, the characters we don’t learn about via personal correspondence—Victoria’s mother, The Duchess of Kent; Lord Conroy, the Duchess’s fiendish advisor; Lord Melbourne, one of Victoria’s early advisors— seem to populate the script only because it would be inaccurate for them not to.
Still, the visuals are almost unbearably dignified and sparkle with royal finery. (It seems as if Vallée and his cinematographer have recently discovered the ability to pull focus for emotional affect; they use it multiple times in every scene and it becomes a jolly novelty.) The musical score by Ilan Eshkeri elegantly adapts snippets of Schubert and Handel and plays as big a role in the emotional life of the film as any of the actors. Then there are the costumes by Sandy Powell (The Aviator, Far From Heaven) that will surely win awards for their attention to detail.
Yes, The Young Victoria is that classic case of style over substance. It feels akin to visiting an elegant museum for the sole purpose of looking around for a few moments. We’ve all been guilty of that—perhaps to our shame.
That said, a dose of aristocratic poise might be just enough to calm nerves that have been jangled by the recent onslaught of American war films. If you think The Young Victoria could do you some good, don’t resist her charms.