Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Young Victoria: A Review (Review #89)


A Queen For All Seasons...

When we see pictures of those that came before us, sometimes we can't imagine they were people who laughed, loved, or lived. Queen Victoria is certainly seen this way: an dour, old, overweight woman who was not amused. The Young Victoria portrays her in a more realistic way: a sheltered girl caught in the machinations of her family and opposing politicians who must will herself to be worthy of the Crown of Britain but who still has so much to learn.

Victoria (Emily Blunt) is the closest legitimate surviving relative of her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent). Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) along with the Duchess' confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) want to keep Victoria as far from Court as possible, and Conroy especially want Vicky to sign a Regency Order so as to gain power for him/themselves. The King fights to live long enough for her to reach eighteen and avoid a Regency, for he detests the Kents save for his niece and heiress.

Meanwhile, in Belgium King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) wants to have someone close to Victoria so as to assure an alliance between Belgium and Britain which will ensure his throne. He chooses a minor noble, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Rupert Friend), to woo his niece and act as his unofficial liaison/spy. Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) also wants to keep the young royal in his pocket so that he can retain power for himself and keep his Conservative rival Sir Richard Peel (Michael Maloney) and his mentor, the Duke of Wellington (Julian Glover), out of power.

In the middle of all this is Victoria herself, who wants to break free of her controlling mother and Conroy, but she knows she is inexperienced in the ways of the world. Albert, for his part, isn't eager to be used as a pawn for his uncle Leopold's schemes and starts siding with Victoria. A romance, independent of what others plot for them, starts to develop, and eventually Victoria sees that she cannot be a good Queen without him.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes in The Young Victoria take a departure from many films based on the lives of royalty. The film still has the requisite lavish costumes by Sandy Powell and sumptuous sets by Paul Inglis, Christopher Lowe, and Alexandra Walker, but it has something unique: a real story and an intelligence to the script.

Take the scene where Victoria and Albert are playing chess. Fellowes trusts the audience to keep up with the subtext, aided by Vallée's direction. We never lose focus on the fact that at the heart of the film is not this grand, imperial woman, but a young girl who chafes under what she calls the "Kensington Rules" (having to always walk up and down the stairs while holding someone's hand for example). Vallée and Fellowes take the unusual step of having Victoria herself narrate her story, giving us an intimacy with her, almost making us part of her world, hopes, and fears.

Vallée also gets the best out of his actors. The smaller roles in The Young Victoria are excellent. Broadbent has little screen time as William IV, but he leaves his impression of a slightly angry monarch indifferent to 'royal decorum' to chastise his sister-in-law but who does wish to see the Crown in the right hands (those not of Kent or Conroy). Richardson's Duchess of Kent appears to be under the spell of Conroy, but we also see that there is a love for her daughter in spite of her failures to do right by her. Strong's Conroy did veer perilously close to over-the-top but he shows that he can be quite menacing in his self-serving schemes.

Bettany was a bit of a surprise to me as Lord Melbourne: I would think him far too young to play the part. However, aided with some excellent make-up work by Veronica Brebner he becomes the older mentor to the young Queen who sees too late that his efforts to fully control the Monarchy for his own gain have brought about a constitutional crisis of his own making.

In a film like The Young Victoria, it is the leads that take the brunt of the success or failure of the project, and both those portraying Victoria and Albert rise to the occasion. Blunt is brilliant as Victoria, who brings both a naivete and an imperiousness to her portrayal of a girl who grows from an insecure teen to a maturing woman. Blunt allows Victoria to be human, constantly looking at her reflection in mirrors, not out of vanity but to give herself a sense of confidence in the awesome responsibility she has to take on.

Her evolution from a girl who suffers under the domination of Conroy to a woman who finally takes a stand against him and wins shows Blunt has firm command of her interpretation of Victoria. She goes from Heiress Presumptive to true Queen, and we are witness to how Victoria has grown mentally.

Blunt's performance is equaled by that of Friend. I was astonished to discover he is British, because his German accent is excellent to the point I thought he was German. He also brings Albert to life, not a mere royal spouse with no duties or responsibilities but as a progressive man brimming with ideas about social improvement.

The Young Victoria is above all things, a love story, one where we're allowed to see the romance between two historic figures come alive. As portrayed by Blunt and Friend, Victoria and Albert are two young people who find commonality in how they are both being manipulated by outside forces and who share similar worldviews, finding in each other not just a companion but true love. When Victoria, as Sovereign proposes marriage to Albert, both actors play it with sincerity and gentleness, and the score by Ilan Eshkeri manages to complement the scene as opposed to either drowning it in melodrama or forcing the mood.

Overall, The Young Victoria maintains a dignity befitting the subject but also allows us to see the people as insecure, manipulated and manipulative, who make mistakes and who are willing to sacrifice themselves and their own interests for a greater good. It is not a dry history lesson but an elegant, respectful film of people who find love in spite of those around them. Fine performances from both the leads and the supporting players (with only Strong a little questionable), we are taken to that long-vanished world occupied not by grand historic figures but by people just like you and me.

Perhaps Her Majesty was not amused, but the audience will certainly be entertained.


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