[26 April 2010]
With the casting of Emily Blunt in the title role, The Young Victoria holds forth the promise of making some sort of bold revisionist appraisal of England’s longest reigning monarch. Mixing coltish sexuality with a haughty regal bearing of her own, Blunt is not an odd choice, necessarily, but so little resembles the dour, frowning popular image of Queen Victoria that it makes you think the film is either going to be some sort of parody, or else a fantastical romp along the lines of Marie Antoinette. If only it were…
There is nothing wrong with The Young Victoria. It is well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. Its main storyline – the courtship of Victoria and Prince Albert – is romantic and affecting. It is gorgeous and sumptuous to regard, an endless parade of ornate palatial interiors, English gardens, and lavish costumes. Blunt herself is as enthralling as she’s ever been – the impish gleam in her eye, her sardonic smile, her formidable sex appeal contained and condensed within the corsets of the role, but made all the more powerful for the restraints put upon her.
It’s just not very…exciting? Well, we’ll cut it some slack – costume dramas rarely are. Necessary? I guess we don’t need another window into the interior life of cloistered royalty. Intriguing? Not so much, and ironic since the film is mostly driven precisely by palace intrigue. Concerned with the ascension to the throne and early days of the Queen’s reign, most of the action revolves around the various machinations of various different concerned parties to either get Victoria on the throne, or keep her off.
In the latter camp stand her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her adviser, Sir John Conroy. If the film has a villain, it is Conroy, a Machiavellian schemer who’s rough treatment of Victoria, condoned by her own mother, is tough to watch. He’s so over the top at points, I kept waiting for him to don a stovepipe hat, swoosh his cape, grow (and twirl) a handlebar mustache, and haul Victoria off in ropes to tie her to a train track. His efforts to force the young princess into signing herself over to a regency (which would effectively put Conroy in charge of England) result in the only real excitement of the film, and they are dispatched with pretty quickly.
The other plot engine at work is the efforts by various off shore, European-based parties (all part of the same royal “family” that continuously intermarried during the 18th and 19th centuries, to the point where everyone was a cousin of everyone else by this point) to get Victoria to marry Albert of the German state of Saxe-Coburg. Their courtship forms the central hub around which the rest of the film turns, much as their celebrated marriage and family life formed the center of Victorian England society.
I won’t say it isn’t romantic. Though mostly comprised of awkward walks in gardens, games of chess, and lots of letter writing, their courtship does have stolen, quiet moments that hint at something more personal emerging in a relationship that started out from political maneuvering. The scenes of their early marriage – romps through fields on horseback, romps in bed – come as such a welcome fresh breath of liveliness that it’s a shame they are given such short shrift.
The other key relationship in the film is the burgeoning friendship and political alliance of Victoria and Lord Melbourne, who fills the role as her personal secretary and advisor, when he’s not also being the Prime Minister of Parliament. For reasons that remain murky, their relationship is regarded as, if not scandalous, then highly inappropriate. While fanning the flames of Parliamentary strife, Melbourne is perceived as using the Queen as political leverage to go after his opponents, attacking them on grounds of… well, the film never says.
The main impression of Victoria during the first years of her reign is that she was remarkably unprepared for her role as monarch, evincing a bullish stubborn streak and politically myopia born of years of isolation. Her legacy – which looms as long and large as her reign (at 63 years, still the longest ruling monarch in British history) – remains a mystery, as does her place in the world outside her palace (but her lasting personal image, with an able assist by Emily Blunt, is given a jolt).
In fact, at times it’s hard to image there is a wider world of England outside the halls of Buckingham Palace. Victoria does at times acknowledge life beyond the gates, and entertains vague notions of wanting to help the poorer classes, but it’s hard to see anything being done. Complementing the total isolation of her early life, up until the ascent to the throne basically, the film is content to remain indoors, removed from the real world, with only the vaguest echoes of outside events reverberating.
You can almost see a deliberate attempt to retreat in the way the film starts detaching itself from time altogether. Though there are subtitles of dates at the bottom of the screen early on – even giving specific times at points (like the death of King William IV, and coronation of Victoria) – as the film goes on the dates start to evaporate, and the time between events starts to become confused. Here it is six months later, then a year, and now three years later. Only an offhand comment lets you get your bearings. It’s odd that film that pays such lavish attention to period detail lets this aspect lapse. Maybe it’s some sort of commentary on the detachment of royal life from normal time and space.
Speaking of lavish detail…I’ve been a bit harsh on The Young Victoria, but where neither I, nor anyone else, can find fault is in the care, attention, and screen time given over to long lingering shots of period costume. For the sartorially obsessed, The Young Victoria is manna from heaven, a two hour parade of ornately byzantine gowns; frilly dresses; sparkly ornamental headwear; and natty pseudo-officer’s uniforms with high collars, high shoulders, and lots of gold lacing.
The film lingers and obsesses over these costumes to such a degree that I wonder if the initial screenplay was just an order list of various changes in wardrobe, and the remainder of the film was just filled in around it to get as many different outfits onto the screen. I can’t fault it – the period and the subject give themselves over to it easily, and necessarily – but it does become overload at a certain point (though it’s always restrained, and is not the over riotous parade of Marie Antoinette).
The DVD release of The Young Victoria comes outfitted with several short featurettes: a quick piece about the “making of”, another quick retrospective of the life of Queen Victoria; and, surprisingly, a very short (7 minutes) feature about costume and set design (I would have assumed that these could actually justified a 90 minute documentary of their own). About 22 minutes of deleted scenes – none of them vital – round out the platter.