Teen blossoms into queen in entertaining ‘Young Victoria’
It’s not easy being queen. Just ask the lonely, fatherless, inexperienced 18-year-old girl thrust onto the throne of England when her uncle, the king, dies, in The Young Victoria. This sumptuously mounted historical drama offers an intriguing glimpse of the youthful monarch destined to give her name to an entire age in Britain, before and after her succession to the throne, and argues the point that everyone involved in the political sphere has a few rough patches at the beginning, however beloved they might later become.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from a script by Julian Fellowes, the film begins with Victoria’s coronation in 1837, a sequence so drenched in pomp and circumstance, the very screen seems gilded.
How she got there is revealed in flashback to the previous year, when the teenage Victoria (the radiant Emily Blunt) tartly observes that “Even a palace can be a prison.” She’s spent most of her life secluded at a country palace with her widowed mother, the German-born Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), forbidden to attend school, or read “popular books,” or even go up or down the stairs without an escort. And she’s constantly bullied by John Conroy (Mark Strong), chief of her mother’s household, an ambitious man with no political credentials but that the duchess is in thrall to him.
He’s not the only one with designs on royal power. Conroy’s plan for the duchess to be named regent on behalf of her underage daughter is blasted when garrulous King William IV (the delicious Jim Broadbent) declares at court that Victoria, alone and unaided, will be his chosen heir. Factions in Parliament led by rivals Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney), and the sitting prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), attempt to cozy up to the princess to gain her favor for their own agendas. And in Europe, King Leopold of the Belgians, the duchess’ brother, recruits his nephew, Albert (Rupert Friend), of the tiny German province of Saxe-Coburg, to pay court to the princess.
Severely coached, Albert is awkward at first in Victoria’s presence. But as soon as he ditches his script and speaks to her honestly, from the heart, they find how simpatico they are—dutiful offspring of royal pedigree with modern ideas trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of governance to achieve some good. The film’s metaphor for their budding alliance is a chess game, during which Albert advises her that “the way to master the game is to learn to play it better” than those who would manipulate her— including his uncle.
But their ensuing long-distance courtship weathers some rough seas as Victoria takes charge of the ship of state. Her infatuation with Melbourne, her mentor, causes a political scandal when she’s perceived to favor him over the people’s choice, Peel, the newly elected prime minister. Public catcalls, rioting at the gates, even attempted violence are a shock to the young queen. Yet she shows more spine than anyone expects in dealing with her advisers and her subjects, especially in bringing her trusted correspondent and confidant, Albert, back to court as her intended betrothed.
The filmmakers wisely keep this love story front and center. Blunt’s graceful, yet piquant Victoria, and the always reliable Friend as a charmingly soft-spoken, thoughtful Albert are attractive enough to keep us engaged all by themselves. But, happily, there’s more going on here than a stately Masterpiece Theatre-type biopic, especially in the details of political infighting, the sometimes ludicrous rules of royal pomp, and the subtle exertion of influence at the top, be it poisonous or benign. How the coltish young Victoria figures out how to resist manipulation, place her trust where it’s deserved, and blossom into the woman and monarch she needs to become give this handsome and entertaining history lesson a modern edge.
THE YOUNG VICTORIA ★★★ Watch movie trailer >>>
With Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany and Miranda Richardson. Written by Julian Fellowes. Direc
ted by Jean-Marc Valee. An Apparition release. Rated PG. 100 minutes.