E: A few years ago I rented the miniseries Victoria and Albert, which tread a lot of the same ground as The Young Victoria. This mannerly adaptation of the royal love story is gorgeously made and well acted, though I did find myself missing a bit of the narrative depth from the miniseries.
C: Certainly it couldn’t tell as much of their story and was more simplified in that respect, but I thought that for the length of a feature film they bit off a reasonable amount of plot. Plot’s not really the most memorable aspect of this movie, though!
E: A voice over tells us that the Princess Victoria is the only child of three brothers, one of whom is the King of England. And since her father died, Victoria has been hidden away in Kent with her German royal mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother’s – steward? paramour? Sir John Conroy (played with signature dark-eyed furor by Mark Strong) means to be the power behind Victoria by controlling her mother. Her life is utterly scripted; she’s not even allowed to walk down the stairs without holding the hand of an adult. Once, when she’s fevered and ill, Conroy tries to force her to sign a Regency order, giving her mother official control of the Empire until Victoria turns 25. It is a wonder and a blessing that she’s not cowed by their blatant, sometimes violent conniving.
There are funny little turns by Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter (a nice Harriet Walter!) as King William and Queen Adelaide; he cants between being jovial and ranting, and she’s all kind advice.
C: I loved seeing Harriet Walter playing a sympathetic, kindly character! Not that she only plays bad guys, but she’s almost always very tart. She did this little role beautifully, though.
E: It was quite a shock to see her being nice, but I liked it. We also had almost unrecognizable Paul Bettany step in as Victoria’s first political ally, the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne.
C: I really didn’t recognize him! That is, I wondered if it might be, but he looked awfully different – I feel like they did something misleading to his jawline.
E: I thought it was the hair that threw me off – I wondered if it was Lawrence Fox, actually.
C: Melbourne was an interesting character in this film; other characters complain that he will try to make Victoria fall in love with him and gain control through her, but though we do see the unfortunate consequences of her allegiance to him (at the expense of the people’s choice of leader), we don’t really see him as Machiavellian in any of his actual behavior to her.
E: Clearly, though, we are meant to prefer Rupert Friend, with his kind eyes and thick, sculpted hair. He plays her German cousin Prince Albert, sent by her Uncle King Leopold of Belgium to win her heart and an ally for Europe. The young man likes his cousin, but he has other political ideas, and the story is that of two people, placed together by accidents of birth and the intentions of others, who become partners – supporting each other, finding their way together, hoping to do good.
C: Going by the trailers I was afraid this would be an excessively modernized version of their story: unlike all the other grasping, traditional 19th-century men, Albert wants Victoria to be a strong, independent woman! They did go there, really, but they handled it with less period-inaccuracy than I feared.
E: Well, that’s the question at the heart of the film, isn’t it? How can a woman hold the throne without being controlled? How can she marry without submitting to her husband? How does a young girl – especially one sheltered by those who wished to keep her dependent and ignorant – learn to play the game of politics so well that no one can best her at it?
The questions are difficult and fascinating ones. It’s a deeply compelling story. When Victoria – wakened to learn of the King’s death – walks back up to her bedroom, scaling the stairs alone for the first time in her life, you want to cheer. When Bettany raises a hand to the villainous Conroy (grasping for a post in the new government) and says simply, “you have gambled and you have lost, sir,” you just might. (Melbourne’s strategy of flattery and conversation has worked much better; you do wonder what history might say if grasping, ambitious Conroy had been nice instead of harsh.) And when Victoria haltingly proposes to Albert, you want to hug them both.
C: I kind of wish that he’d let her get the words out, though!
E: He does in the miniseries, actually. It makes me wonder if there’s an account of that somewhere. Now, their lives are not without misstep. We see fascinating protocol pitfalls; there are dinners served nightly for a monarch dead twenty years, for example, because no one has countermanded the order to hold them, and fires not lit and windows not washed because no one can decide which of two competing household factions should do the work. Albert is not content to let the situation lie, but it’s an uphill battle. Melbourne helps Victoria pick out her household, and stocks it with ladies-in-waiting who support their political party; when he’s voted out of power, the next Prime Minister, Robert Peale, loses his government over an attempt to replace some of those ladies in waiting. (Now that one, I really have to read more about.) She’s considered to have interfered beyond her scope, to have showed inappropriate favoritism, and there are mobs, and rocks thrown in her windows, and general madness. Victoria needs to be the one to solve these problems, and when Albert tries to step in, she doesn’t appreciate it.
C: I liked that they showed both of them adjusting to achieve a power balance – just as he has to come to terms with taking a role of far less political power than his wife, she has to realize that even the queen can’t order her husband around if she wants to have a successful marriage.
E: Right – not that he should be able to boss her, but that she can’t treat him like a subject.
C: Yes. Though politics forms the backdrop for this film, it’s ultimately a movie about two people creating a working marriage – which is more interesting, really, than a simple falling-in-love story.
E: I have a little trouble sorting out what they’ve achieved in this movie because so many scenes were fresh in my mind from the miniseries. I couldn’t say which is more historically accurate (though of course now I want to look!) but it was fascinating to hear the same lines repeated, particularly in scenes involving Conroy and his miserable machinations. She’s more dependent on Melbourne than I remember from the other series, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. We also see less of Albert’s struggle to find ways of being useful to her and the kingdom without upsetting the balance of power. Of course it’s inevitable that a miniseries could tell a more complete tale, but this version is also a bit more in awe of the couple, and perhaps more starry eyed about their somewhat arranged beginnings. All told, however, it’s a more than pleasant use of an evening.
C: The only thing I wasn’t sold on in this picture was the end – it seemed strangely abrupt. I don’t think they needed to do anything differently in the plot, but they could have given the final scene more finality. It’s wonderfully romantic, well-acted, and above all, an aesthetic thrill from beginning to end.
E: Truly. The Young Victoria has been nominated for 3 Oscars, and had been in contention for one more; Emily Blunt scored Golden Globe and Broadcast Critics nods for the eponymous performance. She was squeezed out by Helen Mirren (not unjustly) and Sandra Bullock (less justly). I think it was a fine performance, and a nice departure from her vivacious comic roles, but not necessarily award worthy. (I’m perhaps more of a fan of Abby Cornish’s overlooked work in Bright Star.) Blunt has an equal partner in Friend, who is subtle and compelling, and utterly different from the only other role I’ve seen him in, that of Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.
C: The costumes are breathtaking – I can’t imagine another designer more deserving of that Oscar. Those, plus the sets, scenery, and the actors themselves, make for 105 minutes of sensuous, absorbing beauty.
E: Sandy Powell is a genius. Some of those sleeves – I’d never seen those shapes before, though I don’t doubt they were historically accurate. Amazing. The Young Victoria richly deserves the Art Direction and Costume nominations, and seems a good bet to win at least the costume prize. I’m more puzzled by its inclusion in the Make Up category, and can only conclude that it’s there for the hair. The hair work is pretty impressive, but since no one ages tremendously, or is disfigured (unless you count the Duke of Wellington’s nose?) I’m a little puzzled. That award seems most likely to go to Star Trek. I’ll be curious to see if Victoria can take the Art Direction prize for its sumptuous, meticulous recreations. Although not everything is a re-creation; Duchess Sarah Ferguson is a producer and a driving force behind the movie, and she seems to have had it made as a tribute to the royal family, and to an inspirational royal love which (unlike her own) survived the forces arrayed against it.