Friday, January 8, 2010

The Young Victoria: Vivat regina!

The Young Victoria (2009) • View trailer for The Young Victoria
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for brief violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.10
Buy DVD: The Young Victoria • Buy Blu-Ray: The Young Victoria [Blu-ray]

If Jane Austen had written a factual novel about Queen Victoria's early years, it likely would have sounded much like The Young Victoria.

No surprise there: Screenwriter Julian Fellowes won a well-deserved Academy Award for his sly 2001 pastiche, Gosford Park, which felt like an impossible dream collaboration between Austen and Agatha Christie. Fellowes has a knack for meticulously interlaced ensemble drama and the delectable, tart-tongued dialogue that Austen employed so well.
Recently married and still working out how to behave with each other, Prince
Albert (Rupert Friend) and Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) must set aside the
injured pride of a recent quarrel while making a necessary public appearance.

Fresh evidence is on hand in director Jean-Marc Vallee's tantalizing Young Victoria, which also benefits from Emily Blunt's accomplished and carefully layered starring performance.

Queen Victoria reigned for a jaw-dropping 64 years, from 1837 to 1901, during which time  as the saying goes -— the sun never set on the British empire. She championed the arts, ignored the customary aristocratic arrogance and developed relations with "the riff-raff" (read: ordinary citizens), and kept her nation stable during a time of great industrial and economic change.

We can well imagine that this grande dame might have looked and sounded like Blunt's portrayal here, because one thing is obvious: From a young age, Victoria had to have been quite waspish with those making meddlesome attempts to usurp her birthright. History proves this, because otherwise she likely never would have retained the royal power necessary to back up the authority of her crown.

Vallee's film is tightly compressed, detailing  as its title suggests  Victoria's life and career from just prior to her 17th birthday, to shortly after her initially tempestuous but eventually highly successful marriage to Prince Albert. Fellowes' focus concerns Victoria's need to retain, understand and consolidate her power, and the point at which  not that many years later  it becomes clear that she'll successfully do so.

And yes, those who've not recently dipped into a history book may be vexed by the spoiler unleashed in the previous paragraph, since this film teases us with respect to whether Victoria will succumb to the much more flamboyantly dashing advances of Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who becomes her first prime minister and, for a time, sole advisor.

But c'mon, folks; the London landmark is the Royal Albert Hall, not the Royal Melbourne Hall!

As this story begins, 17-year-old Victoria is a bird in a gilded cage: the overly protected object of a power struggle between her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her two uncles. Victoria's father died before her first birthday, and left no other children; her mother therefore has been forced to raise this one royal heir while having no actual power of her own.

The two uncles  King William IV (Jim Broadbent) and Belgium's King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann)  angle for influence from a distance, vexed that the Duchess allows them so little opportunity to visit their niece.

Victoria is in direct line for the throne, and King William's health is frail at best. The Duchess has put her faith in Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), controller of her household, who schemes to persuade Victoria to sign off on a "regency," a document that would allow the Duchess to effectively be queen until her daughter's 25th birthday.

No stage mother ever dominated her daughter with greater resolve. Richardson is a wickedly subtle bully who takes ever opportunity to belittle Victoria, including insane requirements such as insisting that her daughter never climb or descend stairs without holding an adult's hand, lest she trip and injure herself.

That may have made sense when the girl was 5 or 6, but the 17-year-old Victoria seethes with resentment over the continued enforcement of this ritual.

That said, Vallee and Fellowes take pains to avoid making the Duchess a one-dimensional monster. She's also being manipulated, in her case by Conroy; we recognize the distress in Richardson's eyes, each time the Duchess sees Victoria place her devotion and trust in her governess, Lehzen (Jeanette Hain), rather than in her mother.

But the Duchess is, at best, an average woman in a world controlled primarily by men; she lacks her daughter's intelligence and stubborn spirit. And so she, too, is trapped.


King Leopold encourages his young nephew, Albert (Rupert Friend), to visit and become acquainted with Victoria. Their initial meeting is stiff and uncomfortable; she giggles at the glaringly obvious way he has been coached to admire her favorite things. But the situation thaws when Albert goes "off book" and allows a bit of his own self to emerge; it then becomes apparent  both to Victoria, and to us  that Albert is just as tired of being manipulated by relatives.

Fellowes employs chess as an ongoing metaphor: Victoria and Albert play a game during his first visit, and she confesses to feeling like little more than a pawn on a much larger board.

"Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can," he replies, with wisdom that belies his youth.

"You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?" she asks, clearing testing him.

"I should find one to play it with you, not for you," Albert answers, not missing a beat.

Ah, if only we mere mortals could have conversations of such wit and subtlety.

Young Victoria and Albert are an intriguing match: Both are intelligent and appropriately wary, but while she is governed more by conviction and occasional rashness, he's much more likely to consider the bigger picture. She'll take action before perceiving the consequences; he'll weigh the consequences before taking action.

This comes through in the performances, as well. Blunt, a steely eyed spitfire, puts just the right blend of veiled suggestion and crisp authority into her every word. At the same time, she successfully fulfills this film's primary mandate: to show Victoria not as the "widow of Windsor," forever dressed in black  the elderly image superimposed on her entire reign  but as a sparkling and vivacious young woman who loves music and dance, and chafes at her restricted life.

Fellowes and Vallee also make telling observations regarding the cult of instant celebrity: Victoria went from seclusion and virtual house arrest, in the blink of an eye, to becoming the most famous woman in the 19th century world. She doesn't respond well to this giddy change  who could?  and we begin to wonder if she'll survive even her first year on the throne.

Friend, well remembered as the roguish Mr. Wickham in the 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice, is a much quieter study here. The actor seems to take the film's chess metaphor quite seriously, for his mostly cool demeanor suggests an analytical mind generally several moves ahead of everybody else. At the same time, Friend's Albert is a young man most decidedly in love, and desperate for a means to win similar affections from Victoria.

Bettany comes close to stealing Blunt's thunder, on several occasions, as the Machiavellian Melbourne. Bettany skillfully conveys the many layers of this complex and successful political animal; Melbourne clearly deserves a well-written film of his own.

Broadbent makes a strong impression in his brief appearance as the petulant and short-tempered King William, and Michael Maloney is similarly memorable in his few scenes as Sir Robert Peel, Lord Melbourne's political arch-rival.

Hagen Bogdanski's cinematography is as lush as the palace settings, and as vibrantly colorful as the sumptuous costumes by two-time Academy Award winner Sandy Powell (for Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator). Victoria's young bird may be trapped in its cage, but it's a particularly lovely cage.

Although this film's broad strokes are established historical fact, we delight in imagining the intimate details  the confidential conversations, the inner thoughts spoken aloud during private moments  of people who became so powerful. The success of such a narrative depends on the degree to which the director, screenwriter and actors persuade us that these characters could  or should  have conducted themselves in such a manner.

In that respect, then, The Young Victoria is both persuasive and thoroughly entertaining: as rich, respectful and intelligent a regal portrait as 2006's The Queen. And if Blunt has yet to achieve Helen Mirren's acting chops, she's certainly well on her way.

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