The first thing that struck me about The Young Victoria was just how beautiful the whole film looks. The sunlit palaces, sweeping green lawns and, above all, the sumptuous costumes all work together to cast a spell – one I was delighted to fall under. The costumes are currently on display at Blenheim Palace – sadly, I don’t think I’m going to get a chance to see them before the event finishes at the end of the month, but I’m putting in a link to an article about the exhibition.
I’d expected a lot from this film ever since I heard it was being made. It has a fine cast, headed by Emily Blunt in the title role, with other top names including Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Julian Glover. There’s also an interesting up-and-coming director, Jean Marc Vallée – and a top scriptwriter, Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his script for Gosford Park. The name of Martin Scorsese as a producer was an added attraction, as if I needed one.
So did it live up to my expectations ? Yes – or almost. I don’t think it feels as heavyweight as Gosford Park, somehow, and suspect it won’t win as many awards, since it’s more of a conventional costume drama. But it’s still a delight to watch and one refreshing thing is that it isn’t too long. Watching some movie costume dramas can become a feat of endurance by the end, whereas, at just 100 minutes, this one left me still wanting more.
The chemistry between Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert works well, with their delicate relationship, and its series of false starts, being portrayed convincingly. At the start, the film does feel slightly bitty, as the scene keeps cutting from one palace to another at bewildering speed, with the name of each royal residence flashing up on the screen . However, after a few minutes this settles down and there are fewer very short scenes, as the movie gets into its stride.
Vallée’s previous film, the quirky and strangely haunting French-Canadian indie movie, C.R.A.Z.Y. , set during the glam-rock era, was a coming of age tale about a young man struggling to break away from his family’s influence and build his own life. The setting of The Young Victoria, beginning in the stately rooms of Kensington Palace, couldn’t be more different – but there’s still a similarity of theme, since Victoria too has to separate herself from her oppressive family and make her own mark, deciding what sort of woman and ruler she wants to be.
The opening of the film sees Victoria approaching her 18th birthday and fearing that the king will die before she reaches that milestone. That would mean the need for a Regency – with her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and the Duchess’ adviser/probable lover , Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) taking power. There are some shadowy scenes of Conroy, with the Duchess hovering slightly behind him, trying to bully Victoria into agreeing that they should rule on her behalf until she is at least 21 and preferably 25. On one occasion when she refuses, Conroy physically grabs hold of her and shoves her into a chair.
Although the couple are dead set on a Regency, the old and sick King William (Jim Broadbent) is fiercely against, and there’s an astonishing scene where he starts to berate the Duchess at a grand dinner, screaming and shouting at her while the other guests smile nervously, unsure how to react and trying to pretend everything is going smoothly. Broadbent is one of my favourite older actors – he’s so versatile and just seems to get better with every film.
Despite the beauty of the building and surrounding gardens, it is made clear that Victoria regards Kensington Palace as a prison. She is not allowed to do anything for herself, with her mother continually pleading that the reason for this is a fear for her security. The princess even has to share a room with her mother at night and must always hold somebody’s hand when she walks down the great staircase, in case an assassin has somehow found his way to the foot of the stairs.
One review which I’ve read scoffs at the amount of time spent arguing over whether Victoria should go down the stairs on her own or accompanied, suggesting that this is the central drama of the movie. However, I think this is unfair and that the film does have some moments of high drama, including an attempt to shoot both Victoria and Albert – I’ve read that would-be assassins shot at them three times in real life.
In any case, going back to walking down the stairs, I think this apparently minor matter comes to represent Victoria’s greater battles – to break free from the people and the rules of conduct trying to govern her every moment, and live her own life. Despite Victoria’s prissy image, Emily Blunt portrays her as a woman who is often amused, forthright, and also not at all timid around men . Watching the film, I suddenly realised that Victoria herself started out as a pre-Victorian.
The main focus of all the pre-publicity for the film and the trailers, posters etc, is on Victoria’s romance with Albert (Rupert Friend), and this is indeed at the heart of the movie. It’s shown to be all but an arranged marriage, as the overbearing King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) orders Albert to go to the English court and win her over. However, Victoria only warms to Albert when he starts to ignore Leopold’s advice and tell her his views rather than just colourlessly repeating back her own opinions to her – for instance, telling her truthfully “I like Schubert, I think you don’t, but I do!”
I loved the delicacy of Friend’s portrayal of Albert – and was very impressed by his German accent. To me (I do speak German, but with a heavy English accent!) it sounded spot on and I liked the fact that at times he briefly spoke German to his screen brother and uncle, rather than them all speaking accented English to each other.
According to the Channel 4 TV documentary Queen Victoria’s Men, which I saw on the same day as this movie, Victoria and Albert’s relationship was volatile and passionate, and they often had screaming rows which they then made up in bed. The film does give a flavour of this volatility, but the main feeling of their relationship is tenderness and growing understanding of the pressures that the other is under.
The other important relationship for Victoria in the movie is with her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, portrayed by Paul Bettany as a politician with a well-worn, slightly smarmy brand of charm which he is determined to use to influence the young Queen as much as possible, sometimes with disastrous results. Despite being a Whig, Melbourne isn’t keen on discussing the plight of the poor, looking uneasy whenever Victoria mentions them and trying to steer the conversation into a safer course. This is one of the things which, in the end, makes her turn more to Albert for support – the fact that he shares her desire for reform and will work with her rather than trying to take over.
All in all, I’d definitely recommend this film to anyone who enjoys watching beautifully produced historical dramas. I hope that countries outside the UK don’t have to wait too long for it to be released.