[18 December 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Some people are born more fortunate than others,” narrates Victoria (Emily Blunt). “Such was the case with me. But as a child I was convinced of quite the opposite.” As she speaks in these opening moments of The Young Victoria, she’s very young indeed, hopscotching on shiny palace tiles, her curls bouncing and her dress pink silk. Shot through stairway railings, garden hedges, and iron gates, she looks very contained indeed as she laments, “Some palaces aren’t at all what you’d think. Even a palace can be a prison.”
Poor thing: she’s supposed to grow up to rule a nation, but first she has to survive the efforts of her mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, also known as the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her venal advisor/consort, Irish-born Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), to control not only the kingdom but also Victoria’s life. As a girl, Victoria says, the Duchess has people tasting her food, won’t let her attend school “with other children or read popular books,” and won’t even let her walk down the stairs without holding the hand of an adult. Lonely and bright, she attends to her vast doll collection and learns all about the great composers while Sir John hopes that her uncle, the boisterous King William (Jim Broadbent) will die. This would allow the Duchess to rule under a regency, which he tries to get Victoria to sign. Because Victoria stubbornly refuses to sign off on her own power, she and Sir John are quite at odds, a friction intensified by the fact that he and the Duchess have moved into Kensington Palace, against the King’s wishes.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s movie tracks Victoria’s career, from her initial resistance to her eventual triumph over the bad Sir John, by way of her romance with and marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). The costumes are lovely, the frame compositions exquisite, and the intrigues predictable. Victoria’s arguments with her mother and Sir John lay out plainly their agenda (or rather, his, as she seems both willfully ignorant and desperate to maintain his favor), just as her interactions with her adorable lapdog show the girl’s essential sweetness and self-awareness.
If the movie takes Victoria’s perspective (she being the narrator), it also grants you access to Albert, who first appears in his native Belgium. As nephew to King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), who also happens to be the Duchess of Kent’s brother, Albert is like Victoria being manipulated so that Leopold might improve his own position vis-à-vis England (he apparently has as little regard for his huffy and ineffectual sister as everyone else in the vicinity). Though the Duchess denies William contact with her daughter, she’s willing to go along with the Victoria-Albert match, in hopes that this will confirm her own (and Sir John’s) connection to the crown.
Apart from Victoria, Albert appears both witty and vulnerable, not to mention politically progressive (he’s drawn his own designs for housing for the underclass and offers his insights for free: “I would like to be helpful to you,” he submits, quite earnestly). It’s a combination that she—being exceptionally attentive—notes early on, thus making their arranged coupling seem quite copacetic all around. This makes for a grand romance, which the film displays with apt pomp and circumstance, with an eye as well toward underscoring Victoria’s independence of mind and astute thinking.
In part these characteristics are revealed in her relationship with William Lamb/Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). The Prime Minster when she takes the throne, at age 18, following William’s death, Melbourne moves into Windsor Castle and lobbies for his friends to be members of her staff and ladies in waiting. His conservative positions contrast sharply with Albert’s (reportedly, Melbourne advised the young queen not to read Oliver Twist because it dealt with “unpleasant subjects”), and so Victoria spends some time figuring out where her own views actually lie.
The film’s frankly ponderous opulence and flat reverence makes you yearn for the affecting dislocations, pink Chucks, and punk score of Marie Antoinette. Unlike Sofia Coppola’s refreshing and acutely political movie, The Young Victoria doesn’t critique the royal “system,” such as it is, but instead observes it from a more or less respectful distance. Even the seeming intimate scenes are filmed through prettifying filters and the intra-palace chicaneries are presented as individual lapses rather than systemic problems. Everyone looks good—even the villains (Sir John) dress well and have all their teeth—and the film leaves out any questions concerning the perversities of the court hierarchy, social class structures, and imperial accession orders. Co-produced by the Duchess of York, this take on the royals is old-fashioned in more ways than one.