Review: ‘The Young Victoria’

'Young Victoria'

Anyone who says they don't make love stories like they used to should see "The Young Victoria."

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”).

The Young Victoria

Production

A Momentum release of a GK Films presentation. (International sales: GK Films, Santa Monica, Calif.) Produced by Graham King, Martin Scorsese, Tim Headington, Sarah Ferguson. Executive producer, Colin Vaines. Co-producers, Denis O'Sullivan, Anita Overland. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Screenplay, Julian Fellowes.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Hagen Bogdanski; editors, Jill Bilcock, Matt Garner; music, Ilan Eshkeri; music supervisor, Maureen Crowe; production designer, Patrice Vermette; supervising art director, Paul Inglis; art directors, Christopher Lowe, Alexandra Walker; costume designer, Sandy Powell; makeup and hair designer, Jenny Shircore; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Jim Greenhorn; sound designer, Martin Pinsonnault; historical adviser, Alastair Bruce of Crionaich; stunt coordinator, Rob Inch; visual effects supervisor, Marc Cote; assistant director, Deborah Saban; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 5, 2009. Running time: 104 MIN. (English, German dialogue)

With

Queen Victoria - Emily Blunt Prince Albert - Rupert Friend Lord Melbourne - Paul Bettany Duchess of Kent - Miranda Richardson King William - Jim Broadbent King Leopold - Thomas Kretschmann Sir John Conroy - Mark Strong Baron Stockmar - Jesper Christensen Queen Adelaide - Harriet Walter Baroness Lehzen - Jeanette Hain Duke of Wellington - Julian Glover Sir Robert Peel - Michael Maloney Ernest - Michiel Huisman Lady Flora Hastings - Genevieve O'Reilly Duchess of Sutherland - Rachael Stirling Victoria, Age 11 - Michaela Brooks

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  1. Susu says:

    Apart from having the longest reign in British history (63 years), Queen Victoria also holds two other distinctions. She was, apart from our current Queen, the oldest ever British monarch, living to the age of 81. And she was also the youngest ever British (as opposed to English or Scottish) monarch, coming to the throne as a girl of eighteen. And yet whenever television or the cinema make a programme or film about her, they seem far more interested in the older Victoria than they do in the young girl; the version of Victoria with which modern audiences will probably be most familiar is Judi Dench in “Mrs Brown”. “The Young Victoria” tries to redress the balance by showing us the events surrounding her accession and the early years of her reign. It has the rare distinction of being produced by a former Royal, Sarah Duchess of York, whose daughter Princess Beatrice makes a brief appearance as an extra.

    There are three main strands to the plot. The first concerns the intrigues of Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, a highly unpopular figure even with her own daughter, largely because of the influence of her adviser Sir John Conroy, who was widely rumoured to be her lover. (According to one unfounded rumour he, and not the late Duke of Kent, was Victoria’s natural father). The second strand concerns the growing romance between Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert, and the attempts of King Leopold of Belgium, who was uncle to both of them, to influence this romance. (Leopold’s hope was to increase the prestige of the House of Saxe-Coburg, to which both he and Albert belonged). The third concerns one of the strangest episodes in British political history, the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839, when supporters of the Tory Party (which had traditionally supported a strong monarchy) rioted because the young Queen was perceived to favour the Whig Party and their leader Lord Melbourne, even though the Whigs had historically supported a quasi-republican system of government, with the monarch reduced to a figurehead.

    Scriptwriter Julian Fellowes is known for his Conservative views, and at times I wondered if this may have coloured his treatment of political themes, as he seems to lean to the side of the Tories, the predecessors of the modern Conservative party. Their leader Robert Peel is shown as statesmanlike and dignified, whereas Melbourne, for all his dash and charm, is shown as devious and uninterested in social reform. There may be some truth is these characterisations, but Fellowes glosses over the fact that only a few years earlier the Tories had opposed the Reform Act, which ended the corrupt electoral system of rotten boroughs, and that they had benefited from William IV’s unconstitutional dismissal of a Whig administration.

    Lessons in dynastic and constitutional history do not always transfer well to the cinema screen, and this one contains its share of inaccuracies. Prince Albert, for example, was not injured in Edward Oxford’s attempt on Victoria’s life, and Melbourne (in his late fifties at the time of Victoria’s accession) was not as youthful as he is portrayed here by Paul Bettany. King William IV certainly disliked the Duchess of Kent (who was his sister-in-law), but I doubt if he would have gone so far as to bawl abuse at her during a state banquet, as he is shown doing here. I also failed to understand the significance of the scene in which the Duchess and Conroy try to force Victoria to sign a “Regency Order”; the Duchess’s constitutional position was made clear by the Regency Act 1830, which provided that she would become Regent if her daughter was still under eighteen at the time of her accession. No piece of paper signed by Victoria could have altered the provisions of the Act.

    There are also occasional infelicities. In one early scene we see Victoria and Albert playing chess while comparing themselves to pawns being moved around a chessboard, a metaphor so hackneyed that the whole scene should have come complete with a “Danger! Major cliché ahead!” warning. Yet in spite of scenes like this, I came to enjoy the film. There were some good performances, especially from Miranda Richardson as the scheming Duchess and Mark Strong as the obnoxious Conroy. It is visually very attractive, being shot in sumptuous style we have come to associate with British historical drama. Jim Broadbent gives an amusing turn as King William, although he does occasionally succumb to the temptation of going over the top. (Although not as disastrously over the top as he was in “Moulin Rouge”).

    The main reason for the film’s success, however, is the performances of Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as the two young lovers Victoria and Albert. Blunt is probably more attractive than Victoria was in real life, but in her delightful portrayal the Queen is no longer the old lady of the popular imagination, the black-clad Widow of Windsor who was perpetually not amused, but a determined, strong-minded and loving young woman. Her love for Albert, and their happy family life together, was one of the main reasons why the monarchy succeeded in reestablishing itself in the affections of the British people. (With the exception of George III, Victoria’s Hanoverian ancestors had been notoriously lacking in the matrimonial virtues). Blunt and Friend make “The Young Victoria” a touching romance and a gripping human drama as well as an exploration of a key period in British history.

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