Friday, December 18, 2009

The Young Victoria: A Royalist Review

Monarchists and Anglophiles living in the United States certainly had to wait awhile for our latest dose of sumptuous royal period drama. The Young Victoria (previously mentioned on this blog here and here) was released in the UK on March 6 but did not appear in the US until today, and then only with a very limited release. Fortunately one of the theatres showing it is not far from me, so I was able to attend the first public showing this morning, and am happy to report that the film was worth the wait.

As Andrew Roberts observed, despite a couple minor inventions (Prince Albert did not attend his future wife's Coronation, and was never wounded shielding her from an assassination attempt), this is a film admirable for its historical fidelity. Director Jean-Marc Vallée is clearly not interested in sensationalism, nor is his creation aimed at those who demand action-packed plots or smoldering love scenes. I am not sure how broad the movie's appeal will be for those not interested in 19th century British royal history, but then I am, and I loved it. Like all good period movies, The Young Victoria completely engrosses the audience in its beautiful world, allowing viewers a two-hour escape from our relatively dreary contemporary lives.

Emily Blunt portrays Victoria (1819-1901) in her last years as a princess and first years as a queen, an important time in any sovereign's life but a particularly interesting one in this case given the dramatic contrast between the suffocating imprisonment she endured under her mother the Duchess of Kent (1786-1861) (Miranda Richardson) and the confident authority she quickly demonstrated as Queen upon her accession in 1837 at the age of 18. Miss Blunt is probably prettier than the real Victoria was, but admirably captures her dutiful yet stubborn, refined yet passionate nature. Mark Strong as the Duchess's unpopular adviser Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) is the perfect villain; the viewer is likely to resent him as much as Victoria did. Some might find Jim Broadbent's exuberant performance as King William IV (1765-1837) a bit over-the-top, but I had no trouble being convinced by the intensity of his dislike of his sister-in-law. Thomas Kretschmann's portrayal of Victoria's uncle King Leopold I of the Belgians (1790-1865) is the only one I thought unfair; all he is allowed to do is scheme and vent, and I think there was probably more to Leopold (and more genuine affection for his niece and nephew) than that. But Rupert Friend's performance as Prince Albert (1819-1861), devoted to Victoria but firmly intent on using his gifts to play the substantial political and cultural role she is at first reluctant to grant him, is exquisite, and moviegoers watching him and Blunt together are likely to have no trouble understanding why the real Victoria would be so devastated by Albert's death two decades later. As a classical musician I was particularly pleased that the movie found time to demonstrate Albert's enthusiasm for the great composers of his time.

Films depicting royal courts, with their potentially bewildering array of personalities, tend to flesh out only the major roles. It is to this film's credit that relatively minor characters, including Jesper Christensen as Baron Stockmar (1787-1863), Harriet Walker as Queen Adelaide (1792-1849), and Jeannette Hain as Baroness Louise Lehzen (1784-1870), are also given their chance to make an impression. Paul Bettany, 38, was perhaps an odd choice to play Lord Melbourne (1779-1848), who was already 58 when Victoria came to the throne; he does his best with the role but an older actor might have been better able to convey the nature of their relationship which though vaguely romantic was more grandfatherly than anything else. The "Bedchamber Crisis" of 1839 with Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) (Michael Maloney) is the perfect sort of constitutional crisis for this sort of movie, as it really was a political standoff about nothing more than whether the Queen's attendants should be wives of members of the ruling party. This is not an ideological film and anyone expecting more political substance than that will be disappointed, though Victoria and Albert both indicate their commitment to social reform.

Some reviewers have apparently found The Young Victoria insufficiently gripping, but they must look for different things in a film, since when it ended I was surprised that two hours had gone by, generally a sign that a movie has done its job. The Young Victoria is not about political intrigue or fast-paced action; it is about the beauty of 19th-century England, the grandeur of monarchy, and the forceful personality of a charming girl who would become one of history's most enduring and revered monarchs. No lover of ecclesiastical and royal ceremony will fail to be moved by the splendid recreation of Victoria's 1838 Coronation, which we get to see twice, once as a sort of introduction and again when it actually occurs in the plot, complete with Handel's incomparable anthem "Zadok the Priest," which composer Ilan Eshkeri skillfully weaves into the score. Be sure to catch the real Victoria's great-great-great-great-granddaughter Princess Beatrice in a cameo as a lady-in-waiting in the coronation procession, an intriguing touch that to my knowledge is without parallel in the history of movies about royalty. She and her mother, producer Sarah Ferguson, can be proud of having been associated with a film that is a credit to its genre and its subject. I encourage all readers of this blog to go see it if they have not already.


Anonymous said...

As a fellow anglophile, I've been looking forward to this as well. I'm especially looking forward to seeing the latest villain in Mark Strong's canon.
Great review!

Anonymous said...

That clinches it--I'll go see it. Thorough review and, geez, reading your blog I'm starting to have these royalist thoughts creeping in. OMG!

May said...

Thanks for this very interesting review. I'm sure I'd enjoy seeing this, although it's a pity about the one-sided portrayal of Leopold I.

AM said...

Excellent, thoughtful review! I look forward to seeing the film this weekend!