Victoria is a typical teenager: feisty, music-loving fashionista, dance-mad and boy crazy, but hemmed in by the boring adults who want to control her life. The time is the 1830s, the place, Buckingham Palace, and Emily Blunt has “the role of my career, so far” as Her Royal Highness Princess Victoria of Kent, who is about to become England’s youngest and longest-reigning ruler.
Blunt’s new movie, “The Young Victoria,” offers a view of the queen we haven’t seen before: the vivacious young woman in the turbulent early years of her monarchy.
Playing against the popular image of Victoria as a dowdy dowager was “the joy and freedom of the role,” said Blunt, the fine-boned English actress whose breakthrough turn as a put-upon assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada” moved Meryl Streep to declare her one of the finest young performers she’s ever worked with.
“Everyone had the image of the lady being wheeled around in black, miserable, in mourning. This was about passion and love.” Although the marriage between young Victoria and Prince Albert von Saxe-Coburg und Gotha was politically arranged, their relationship was genuine and devoted.
“Essentially, the film is a love story,” Blunt said. “It was manipulation and calculation on their families’ parts, but they managed to rise above all of that. They both realized they were being gamed. Once they dropped the script they’d been bred to recite, they discovered such true love. Which is rare. They were made for each other.”
Blunt had played royals before. She was Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, on British TV. But Blunt has consciously avoided the bustle-and-petticoat roles that can pigeonhole English actresses in musty museum pieces.
“If you’re an English actress, you are going to end up in a period drama of some sort,” she said in an interview. “I’ve done my fair share. I’ve done ‘20s, I’ve done ‘40s on TV, but this was my first Victorian. It was really exciting to play a Victorian like Victoria.”
Which is to say, not stuffy or staid at all. “She was a rebel, a modern thinker,” Blunt said. “In her younger years she had such exuberance and passion and zeal for life. I loved her spirit, to have lived such an oppressive and lonely childhood and to have risen above all that to become such a success.”
Like many English people, Blunt had ambivalent feelings about royalty before playing Victoria.
“Maybe it’s the complacency of growing up in England, taking them for granted in the same way that I haven’t really walked around St. Paul’s Cathedral. If you’ve grown up in that environment, you sort of shrug your shoulders at it. Doing the film and drawing back the facade of the etiquette and tradition, you see the humanity in these people.”
Throughout the production, Blunt was “corseted up to my eyeballs. Rewarding to look at, difficult to wear.”
She immersed herself in research, devouring Victoria’s diaries especially. “It’s from the horse’s mouth, not someone’s perception of her 80 years afterward. She was so open, she could go on for pages about the reason why she hated this person or a joke that (Prime Minister Lord) Melbourne made. You can smell the atmosphere; you can feel it. Those diaries helped me find out who this girl really was.”
“The Young Victoria” was shot in palaces and castles, an experience Blunt called “transporting. Filming in that opulence and glamour, we were really lucky not to walk off set and see the back of scaffolding. To be really there, seeing that priceless art and wondering who had walked down that hallway before you was wonderful.”
The film’s producers include unlikely partners Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, “a weird concoction of people,” Blunt observed. Ferguson “came up with the initial idea but very much let us go ahead and make it without her there. But she was very encouraging at the start, and I think we needed her cracking the whip because it’s quite rare for movies like this to get made. Everyone’s looking for the big blockbuster that’s going to get bums on seats, but she really thought this was an important film to make.”
As for Scorsese, “he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of Victoria, he probably knows more than me. Which is sad.”
Playing royals is a training ground for the Dench/Mirren rank among actresses, but the 26-year-old Blunt isn’t interested in grande dame status just yet. After her breakthrough role in “The Devil Wears Prada,” she perfected an American accent to play a lovelorn schoolteacher in “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a predatory PR agent in “The Great Buck Howard,” a crime scene sanitizer in “Sunshine Cleaning” and a Washington, D.C., party girl in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Next year she’ll be seen “screaming and running” alongside Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro in “The Wolfman.” The only thing her diverse characters have in common, it seems, is piercing Windex-blue eyes.