Anyone who complains they don’t make love stories like they used to will get a kick out of “The Young Victoria,” a biopic of the early years of Blighty’s longest-reigning queen and, in particular, her courtship with the love of her life, Prince Albert. Tip-top casting and playing, led by young thesps Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as the royal lovebirds, a succulently crisp script by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and trim helming by French-Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee (“C.R.A.Z.Y.”) combine in well-groomed, upscale, three-hankie entertainment for the “Masterpiece Theater” crowd. Pic bows in the U.K. March 6.
A brief intro with Victoria as an 11-year-old (Michaela Brooks) sets her up as a victim of her position, caught between the machinations of two royal uncles and a prisoner of protocol and social rules. But thanks to Blunt’s beautifully modulated turn, which balances royal reserve, girlish enthusiasm and lightly tempered steel, the film is in no way a morbid study in self-pity. The biggest compliment one can pay Blunt is that the more familiar Queen Victoria of later life can already be glimpsed in her perf without ever getting in the way of her youthful portrait.
Story proper begins in 1837, just before the 18th birthday of Princess Victoria of Kent (Blunt), who, in the absence of any other heirs of King William (Jim Broadbent, hilariously ornery), is next in line to the throne.
However, so far Victoria has been kept away from the court by her domineering mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her mom’s ambitious adviser, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). If the sickly William soon kicks the bucket and mom and Conroy can get the still underage Victoria to sign a regency order, the duchess will be able to rule in her name and Conroy can rule through the duchess.
Victoria holds out against their bullying, but across the Channel, her uncle, Belgian King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), is plotting to get his nephew, Albert (Friend), to marry Victoria for political convenience. Albert is coached in Victoria’s likes and dislikes, but when the two finally meet, Victoria takes a fancy to him when he drops his act.
Blunt and Friend quickly establish the screen chemistry vital to the movie’s success in a delicious scene in which the two play chess under the watchful eyes of their scheming elders. The complicity they develop forms the basis for a long-distance courtship that slowly ripens into love.
However, after becoming queen at the age of 18, Victoria still feels unready to commit to marriage before establishing her own authority. Artfully manipulated by pol Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), she finally gives in to her own heart and Albert’s patient courting, and the two, who are only months apart in age, finally marry three years later, in 1840.
The lead-up to the proposal of marriage is played as a romantic-political triangle between Victoria, Albert and Melbourne. Blunt’s controlled portrayal of the young woman’s fractionally different attitudes to the two main men in her life is one of the pic’s major delights. When she finally reveals her true feelings at the movie’s 70-minute mark, the remainder of the film, sketching her and Albert’s first years of marriage, movingly surfs on the tide of emotions unleashed.
Fellowes’ screenplay packs in a host of characters and some background politics such as Victoria’s edgy relationship with Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney), in a series of brief, pithily dialogued sequences. What could have been a bumpy dramatic ride — and is, in the early stages — is gradually smoothed into longer, more satisfying arcs by Vallee’s fluid direction, smooth cutting by Jill Bilcock and Matt Garner, and especially by Ilan Eshkeri’s copious score. Latter lacks any strong musical motifs, but its classical, vamp-’til-ready style lends both dignity and romance to the material.
It’s Blunt’s show, but both Friend, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Albert, and Bettany, playing way older than he is, are almost equal partners. Both their characters nicely modulate as the movie progresses, with Bettany’s Melbourne becoming almost sympathetic.
Supports are solid down the line, with both Richardson’s mom and Harriet Walter’s aunt the main standouts. Both thesps, like Friend, sport realistic German accents, emphasizing how many of the senior royals of the time were in fact Teutons. Realism doesn’t quite extend, however, to Blunt’s accent, which is pure British cut-glass, even though Victoria’s first language was German and she never quite mastered English grammar.
Other tech credits are all top of the line, from Sandy Powell’s quietly eye-catching costumes to the candle-lit, Super-35 widescreen lensing by German d.p. Hagen Bogdanski (“The Lives of Others”).