Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria is frothy, spirited and fairly inconsequential. I like that about it.
Unlike Stephen Frear’s The Queen, among other examples of what critics have lately dubbed “queensploitation,” The Young Victoria has no grand statement to make about royalty and modernity, pageantry and politics, or the clash of the public and the private.
Nor is there subversive, sexed-up revisionism à la Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth — despite the comparable mishandling of Brideshead Revisited by The Young Victoria screenwriter Julian Fellowes. (Those who grumbled about Fellowes’ mushy coda to Pride & Prejudice may likewise roll their eyes at the mild amorousness between the newlywed young queen and her consort, but come on, lighten up.)
Up to the closing titles, there is no inkling here that Victoria (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada) will go on to become the longest-reigning British monarch up to that time, or that two decades of marriage to Prince Albert (Rupert Friend, Pride & Prejudice) will be eclipsed by four decades of reclusive mourning.
Nothing foreshadows Victoria’s enduring image as the black-clad “Widow of Windsor” — the dowager image vividly realized by Judi Dench in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown. Nothing, that is, except her romance with handsome young Albert. The Young Victoria doesn’t try to explain or illuminate Victoria’s legacy, only to dramatize and celebrate its less familiar early chapters.
We meet Victoria as a child growing up in Kensington Palace under the suffocatingly protective care of her mother, the Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her scheming advisor and lover, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), during the final years of the reign of the young princess’s ailing uncle, William IV (Jim Broadbent).
At Kensington, the young princess is treated as a precious, fragile china doll: Never permitted to be alone, she shares a bedroom with her mother, and is not allowed even to ascend or descend a staircase without her hand being held — a stricture she silently protests with a defiant little hop on the last step.
Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, is dead, making her heiress to the throne, and the only heir her mother can ever produce. This makes the young Victoria the object of a power struggle. On the one hand, her mother and Sir John hope to exercise regency if the king dies before Victoria attains majority. On the other, King William despises both his daughter-in-law and her lover — Broadbent is terrific in one of “Silly Billy”’s notorious intemperate outbursts at a beautifully shot banquet — and cherishes the hope of postponing death until his niece can ascend the throne.
The Duchess and Sir John press the princess to extend the potential regency period for another seven years, until Victoria’s twenty-fifth birthday. “You’re too young!” Sir John rages. “You’ve no experience! You’re a china doll walking over a precipice!”
“Victoria,” her mother tries to reason with her, “Sir John only means that you are unprepared for the task that awaits you.”
“And if I am,” Victoria retorts, “whose fault is that?”
Both sides have favored suitors: The king hopes she will marry a grandson of his, but the Duchess’s brother King Leopold I of Belgium is grooming his nephew Albert to court the young princess. In Coburg, Albert preps like a young scholar cramming for an all-important oral exam, with family advisor Baron Stockmar (Jesper Christensen) quizzing him: What novels does she like? What other recreations? What is her favorite opera?
Albert dutifully learns his lessons, but the princess turns out to be a challenging interview, and the pre-approved answers don’t necessarily fly. His preparation has not included the waltz, and none of Stockmar’s quizzes prepares him for Victoria’s question, during a game of chess, “Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself? In a game being played against your will?”
“Do you?” Albert asks.
“Constantly,” she confides. “I see them leaning in and moving me around the board.”
“Then,” he replies, “you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.”
Victoria likes this answer. “You don’t recommend I find a husband to play it for me?”
“I should find one to play it with you, not for you.”
Then Victoria tries another gambit: “You know the King wants me to marry my cousin George?”
Without looking up from the board, Albert replies, “What’s he like at chess?”
Albert, then, may not be content to be a pawn in his uncle and aunt’s machinations. On the other hand, it is far from clear that Victoria will favor Albert in the first place. Another player must be reckoned with.
That would be the Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), the Whig Party leader who will become such a mainstay for the inexperienced monarch that some will derisively dub her “Mrs. Melbourne” many decades before the relationship with a Scottish servant that leads to the similar nickname “Mrs. Brown” in the Judi Dench film. At one point Albert, reading a letter from Queen Victoria, concludes with chagrin, “Plenty of praise for Lord Melbourne and not much of anything else.”
Nobody plays the game better than Melbourne, and The Young Victoria makes it clear that its heroine makes her share of mistakes, beginning with her reliance on Melbourne. Ultimately, though, the film is in love with its heroine. Despite some liberties, The Young Victoria sticks close enough to the historical facts that it can’t contrive a happy ending for her, but it finds a happy stopping point.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.