Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y.), The Young Victoria is a movie with a lot of charm. This is, of course, rather bad news for its makers (producers include Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson) because charm went out of fashion in Hollywood a very long time ago, but it’s good news for those of us who enjoy a well turned out period romance to perk us up.
“Some of us are more fortunate than others,” observes a sober young Victoria (Emily Blunt), Princess of Kent as she dwells upon a childhood that appears to be anything but. Although she lives a life of luxury, it is also one of great restriction: the young princess does not attend school, have playmates, read popular novels, eat without having her food tasted first, sleep alone or even walk down the stairs without having an adult lead her down by the hand. She’s a conservatively dressed Mariah Carey who does not sing (although she is actually pissed about the whole hand holding thing).
Having established her extraordinary upbringing, The Young Victoria immediately makes her relatable through the simple means of an entertainingly (for us) awkward dinner celebrating the birthday of her paternal uncle, King William of England, to whom she is heir. As the subsequent scene takes place, no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington is made to mouth a disparaging groan about the nature of families.
This trick of balancing the public and private, the relatable as well as the unfathomable, is one that writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) does marvelously well. Victoria is by turns the budding monarch with an iron will that we’ve all read about and an unsure young woman charting tricky waters, both personal and political, from which she has been shielded all her life.
“You’re a china doll,” Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), the comptroller of her mother’s household and her would-be controller, snarls at her.
“Then I must smash,” she rages back at him for the years she spent locked away from the world.
Smash she does and the man she chooses to put her back together is Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend). A cousin on her maternal side, the impecunious Albert is chosen by their mutual uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, to cement his hold on the British throne via marriage to Victoria. In a neat reversal of traditional roles that subtly underscores Victoria’s inherent difference in status from other young ladies, it is Albert who worries about his conversation, her tastes, and his lack of dancing skills as he is painstakingly tutored on what books she likes to read, her favorite composers and so on, in an effort to present himself as the ideal mate to the woman who would one day rule over an empire that circled the globe.
Determined not to marry to please her family, the quietly rebellious Victoria soon finds in him her only friend in spite of their hilariously inauspicious beginning as Albert tries entirely too hard before relaxing into his real, adorably dorky self.
The young couple’s navigation of life amongst the push and pull of international politics, palace intrigue, Albert’s need to be something more than a gigolo with a fancy title and Victoria’s jealous guarding of her authority even as they forge a relationship that neither was too keen to embark upon in the first place… it’s all very charming.
Perhaps even a little too charming. Although a thoroughly pleasant experience, what struck me at the end was the almost complete absence of dramatic tension. Everybody is just so nice.
Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) is presented early on as a possible rival for Victoria’s affections, a politician willing perhaps to even seduce the naive young princess in a bid to control the throne. He ends up counseling her to recognize the worth of her admirable young husband. Conroy builds the heat a fraction by actually manhandling Victoria and even prompts Melbourne to ask if cutting him loose might not be dangerous in some way – in the end, he quietly packs his bags and leaves. King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) is another character that you think might well cause a hitch or two… he shrugs his shoulders and walks away.
The palace intrigues are (dare I say it?) kind of lame, the emotional betrayals are not so shocking and the one great Incident that occurs towards the climax takes about 30 seconds to resolve – with the help of a desk of all things. It’s a Sooraj Barjatya film with a plot and no songs (well, a tiny bit of opera doesn’t count), not a Shekhar Kapur film about a perilous period of English history.
And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I enjoyed it. It was interesting to watch a movie that worked against expectations even at the risk of being branded dull, which it most certainly is not. If you’re looking for something exciting and dramatic – and really, why should you in a movie about the early life of Queen Victoria – then this isn’t the film for you. But if you’re looking for charm and good story telling, anchored by excellent performances, then The Young Victoria is worth a watch.