Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Roderick Heath
There’s a new subgenre of prestige pics delving into underappreciated women of history, featuring young starlets hunting for Oscar glory by strapping on corsets like their male movie counterparts often strap on body armour. Last year’s The Duchess was, hard as it was to admit, one of the most solidly satisfying and intelligent works of its kind, a quiet success amidst the stern and manly business of making end of year best-of lists. The Young Victoria seemed primed to be a strong successor, offering the up-and-coming Emily Blunt a meaty, attention-grabbing role as the monarch who gave her name to an entire era and way of life, and yet who remains largely a cipher in the public imagination, largely envisioned as a tubby old lady speaking about herself in the collective pronoun.
As contemporary historians have often revealed, however, Victoria was a woman—at least in her early years—who, along with her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was synonymous with the increasing liberalisation, moral probity, and broadening outlook of British society and empire, a process that began with her own ascendance at the fading of the highly macho, less domesticated era embodied by the aged Duke of Wellington. The Young Victoria attempts to dramatise that very point in portraying the teenage Victoria as confined as much by her opportunistic mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her ferocious bully of an advisor and confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), as by protocol and concerns over her safety as the only heir to the throne, with her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) childless and her own father long dead. Early sequences of Conroy terrorising Victoria and kicking dogs resemble Victorian melodrama, sure enough, you know, like The Woman in White or something where the young heiress is being browbeaten by the wicked relative into signing over her fortune. Whether or not Conroy is the Duchess’ lover is mooted, yet not ventured into, and the Duchess’s willingness to let her daughter be used as a plaything of state is underscored by Victoria’s rather closer relationship with her childhood confidant and fill-in governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen (Jeanette Hain).
Victoria, however, despite being raised as if wrapped in cotton wool, has a nascent strength of will, and this, along with William’s ranting distaste for the Duchess and Conroy, holds them at bay long enough so that Victoria, on her uncle’s death, is crowned. Meanwhile, back in Belgium (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), the fresh prince of that newborn kingdom, King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), wants his young relative Albert (Rupert Friend) to present himself as an interested suitor to the newly minted female monarch. Albert, awkward and intellectual rather than dashing and lordly, appeals to Victoria for precisely these reasons. But Victoria soon falls under the spell not of a romantic rival but a political mastermind, the current liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), a vigorous manoeuvrer and charmer, who works to fill Victoria’s household with his friends’ wives and soon uses her influence to outmaneuver his chief rival, Robert Peel (Michael Maloney).
Julian Fellowes’ script attempts to draw in as complete and fleet-footed a fashion as possible the proper political perspective as well as the intimate human drama at its core. The idea here, as usual, is to humanise the icons, which means moments like that in which Victoria and Albert express their giddy love for each other by skipping about in the rain. It is in many respects, and not just in being about the same woman, a prequel to Mrs. Brown (1997): where that film’s title came from the epithet spat at Victoria for presumed dalliances with her footman John Brown, here Victoria is branded “Mrs. Melbourne” for her ties to the Prime Minister after he loses an election to Peel, a way of portraying a society that couldn’t perceive a woman as anything more than an extension of whichever man was close to her. Victoria stands firm in not dismissing his cronies in her employment to please Peel, precipitating a constitutional crisis that forces Peel to concede to Melbourne and provokes the usual yowling movie mobs to chuck bricks at Buckingham Palace’s windows. Likewise, director Vallée works to keep things moving with a springy, edit-happy pace, as if trying to live up to having Martin Scorsese as a coproducer.
Fellowes, to his credit, tries to suggest some depth to his view of the personages, from Wellington (Julian Glover, having fun) commenting on his inability to charm Victoria like Melbourne due to his dislike of her father (“The meanest officer I ever met”), to Conroy halting his gothic tantrums long enough to contemplate his wasted potential. But these remain potted little pretences to character portraiture, and you won’t come away from the film with any but the vaguest feel for who these people were. Threads that are supposed to be affecting, like the rivalry between the Duchess and Lehzen for Victoria’s heart, are doomed because neither is rendered as more than a sketch. Nor do Fellowes and Vallée come close to finding an appropriate rhythm of storytelling or a compelling dramatic arc. The film opens with a sluggishly written voiceover by Blunt and a choppy montage that suggests the techniques of a cable TV docudrama, a feeling that never truly fades. In one moment, Vallée has Victoria glide weightlessly across a ballroom floor towards Albert to take her first post-coronation dance, a gimmick designed to suggest her buoyant love in a moment of triumph, but really a mere showy rupture in the film’s technique. Rather than infuse it with vigour, Vallée’s approach sucks away whatever contiguity it might have possessed, and the comparison to any scene in Sofia Coppola’s hip, yet incisive Marie Antoinette (2006) is not becoming.
Whilst the politics of the era are evoked and touched upon, there’s no real penetration into the complexities of governing or indeed what exactly is being governed. There’s acknowledgement of Victoria’s interest in social welfare as opposed to Melbourne’s lip-service liberalism, but precious little of the breadth of Victoria’s interests and what she meant to the people of her age—how, for instance, she forcefully repudiated and insisted on contrition for the often crazed suppression of the Indian Mutiny. The scope of the drama rarely proceeds far beyond a procession of gorgeous interiors employed in such a way that doesn’t so much suggest Victoria’s purposefully limited horizons as it does the usual contradiction of this genre: emotional brutality and repression leavened by classic real-estate porn. And, yes, the costumes, buildings, and lighting and shooting thereof (by Hagen Bogdanski) are all pretty indeed, infused with a kind of honeyed light that suggests the luxuriant beauty of being held closest to the bosom of the belle époque.
Moreover, The Duchess at least found an intense and wrenching personal story at the heart of the period bric-a-brac, something that’s stillborn here. The romance of Victoria and Albert is not one of consuming passion, but the niceties of this kind of film don’t allow the filmmakers to find any humour and discursive unconventionality in their romance. Friend nicely captures Albert’s uneasy, but innately decent manner, but Blunt’s characterisation never quite comes into focus. Blunt has talent, but her portrayal remains curiously inert. The pitch of Victoria as a quietly gutsy woman taking on a world rigged against her self-determination remains entirely theoretical. Ironically enough, her best moment comes in the most contradictory scene, in which Victoria, having fought to assure everyone she’s not too young and too female to rule, throws a bratty fit at Albert for taking an active part in managing royal affairs, to which his entirely justifiable response is to walk out on her as she orders him to stay. In the next scene, he gamely receives a wound in throwing himself between Victoria and a lunatic assassin’s bullet, just in case you take him for some Eurotrash nancyboy. The best performance is easily that of Bettany as Melbourne (not surprising as Bettany often steals films), providing the charm offensive Melbourne requires, and yet sharpening to a wicked point in a scene in which he explains to a still-hopeful Conroy: “I’m sorry, I can see that I am not speaking clearly—you have played the game, and lost!”
Otherwise, we are only mildly amused.