TV Review: ‘Victoria’ on PBS Masterpiece

TV Review: 'Doctor Who' star Jenna
Courtesy PBS Masterpiece

“We must not let in daylight upon magic,” British essayist Walter Bagehot once wrote of the English monarchy, and Queen Victoria in particular.

“Victoria,” which is based on a novel about the famous monarch, doesn’t just bathe its subjects in golden daylight; there’s plenty of evocative candlelight, too. “Victoria” depicts life behind the scenes in a series of well-appointed palaces and lush gardens, but would-be Bagehots have nothing to fear: Admirers of Queen Victoria could hardly hope for a more flattering portrait. The problem with that romantic — and romanticized — approach is that this Masterpiece miniseries can get so bogged down in admiration for its core character that it begins to meander, and it often sands the edges off conflicts surrounding the early years of the young queen’s reign.

The result is a miniseries that’s easy on the eyes and generally more interesting when capable actors like Jenna Coleman, who plays Victoria, and Rufus Sewell, as her advisor Lord Melbourne, imbue the dialogue and character psyches with more depth than the scripts provide. Subplots about secondary and tertiary characters, which feel like castoffs from lazier “Downton Abbey” seasons, frustrate for a variety of reasons, not least because they’re executed with a lack of flair and originality.

Fortunately for fans of costume dramas — this conventional drama’s target audience — sparks fly elsewhere.

The other half of Bagehot’s famous dictum warns against bringing the Queen into “the combat of politics,” lest it lead to a situation where the monarch is no longer “reverenced by all combatants.” But in this telling of the royal tale, young Victoria charges into social and political combat time and again — usually in the private sphere, however, and within the many constraints of her unusual position. Until she came along, as one courtier reminds her, there hadn’t been an unmarried English queen for centuries; many royal conventions had to be reinvented on the fly, and as time goes on, Victoria learns to manipulate many of those changes to her advantage. 

The miniseries opens with her learning of her accession, and soon afterward, everywhere she turns, there are stuffy retainers reminding her of precedents that must be followed, or dismissive male relatives who seek to use her powerful position to their advantage. Much is made of marrying her off in order to “control” her, in the words of her condescending uncle. Unluckily for meddling Uncle Leopold (who also happens to be the King of Belgium), this headstrong queen, who is played with bright-eyed verve by Coleman, is not temperamentally suited to being meek or or passive.

The first season of “Victoria” is essentially the story of two romances: As Victoria grows into her role as queen, her reliance on Lord Melbourne grows into a deeper bond. Half the reason to watch British period dramas is to enjoy the sight of skilled actors conveying repressed longing, and Sewell and Coleman do a fine job of supplying those yearning moments, despite the drama’s uneven pace. Lord Melbourne, a widowed politician, is not marriage material for a queen, even one stubborn enough to make her (chaste) preference obvious. Sewell, who is often the best part of any production he’s in, effortlessly conveys what it costs him to quietly rid Victoria of her attachment to him. As is so often the case, he has a captivating ability to create the impression that five thoughts have passed through his head for every considered sentence that he speaks.

Coleman, like Claire Foy in the similar Netflix drama “The Crown,” does a fine job of depicting the doubts and passions roiling the heart beating beneath the queen’s expensive raiments. The former “Doctor Who” actress also has plenty of chemistry with Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, a serious German whose prim behavior masks well-informed social concerns and a passionate heart. It’s ironic that a woman whose name became a byword for uptight prudery actually enjoyed a deep emotional and sexual bond with her husband, and “Victoria” conveys their young love with infectious delight if little subtlety.

Another thing the PBS drama shares with “The Crown” is a tendency to pad out plots that are already repetitive. One story about an intimidated young servant is astonishing for all the wrong reasons: “Victoria” tries to get viewers to see the menacing behavior of a fellow employee as ultimately romantic; however, for several episodes, it is anything but. Other stories set below stairs are frequently thin and derivative, despite the energetic talents of the supporting cast.

Production design, costumes and locations all provide feasts for the eyes in this eight-part series, which will be broadcast on seven Sundays. But for those keeping score at home, the coronation crown used in the Netflix drama starring Foy looks much more real and impressive than the rather tinny-looking object placed on young Victoria’s head in that hallowed moment. It’s an apt metaphor, given that the Netflix series, despite its own array of flaws, generally has a bit more heft and depth. But for fans of flouncy skirts, romantic skirmishes in palaces, silk waistcoats and handsome English actors, Masterpiece’s royal diversion may be hard to resist. 

TV Review: 'Victoria' on PBS Masterpiece

Drama: Eight episodes (6 reviewed); PBS Masterpiece; Sun. Jan. 15, 9 p.m. 60 mins. (120 min. premiere)

Crew

Executive producers, Daisy Goodwin, Dan McCulloch, Damien Timmer, Rebecca Eaton.

Cast

Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Tom Hughes, Alex Jennings, Paul Rhys, Catherine Flemming, Peter Firth, Daniela Holtz, Eve Myles, Nell Hudson, Adrian Schiller

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  1. Sandy J says:

    I think “Victoria” is a fantastic series. Jenna Coleman, Tom Hughes, and Rufus Sewell do a great job, though I think Mr. Hughes does not get enough credit in his role as Albert. I do think, however, the downstairs staff story line is a bit weak as I can’t get invested In those characters, which leaves me longing to get back to Victoria and Albert.

  2. Jay Cee says:

    Rufus Sewell as Melbourne steals every scene he’s in. I hate to see him go and now must endure the sniveling Albert who has less personality than Dash the dog. The series overall is pretty forgettable.

  3. Diane Muentz says:

    As entertainment, this is tedious. I survived 3/4 of the first episode because I enjoy British history which is thinly woven throughout. The servants are unrealistic and boring. And Sir John, Okay, I got it the 7th time, he is plotting. Mama also repeated the same lines to exhaustion. Actors are good, script is not.

  4. Ruth says:

    How on earth can anyone compare this marvellous series with Downton Abbey. Yes, DA was very watcheable but it was totally empty of any content. Victoria is historically accurate and is both entertaining and educational. The performances are superb and Jenna Coleman deserves praise for her laid-back and not overly ‘sweet’ portrayal. As always Rufus Sewell is outstanding but the entire cast is excellent and I’m really looking forward to the second series.

    As for The Crown, it hasn’t yet been shown in my country but I’ve never understood the need to make a series about people who are still very much alive! There are wonderful documentaries on the lives of the current Royal Family which must be more accurate than any fictional story.

  5. Paully says:

    Jenna Coleman has the cutest nose I’ve ever seen .. But I’m not sure it’s real ha ha..

  6. Mabel says:

    Jenna Coleman is terrific in this proving her star turn as fan favourite Doctor Who companion, Clara, was not a fluke. Not as sumptuous or high minded as The Crown, but just as enjoyable. Rufus Sewell and Jenna Coleman have sizzling chemistry and became a national water cooler point of weekly conversation. Hughes is Coleman’s real life partner so no surprise that they play off so well against each other too as their relationship began during filming. It was a massive popular and critical hit in the UK and beat Poldark in the ratings when they ran head to head.

  7. tony says:

    two words-rufus sewell.

  8. aamadis says:

    I would call this series ‘light entertainment.’ It’s not very realistic, and sometimes very silly, but still fun. Unfortunately, the story about the ‘downstairs’ servants was not only boring, but completely superfluous and unnecessary. I ended up fast forwarding through all of the scenes with the servants and didn’t have any trouble understanding any of the stories concerning Victoria. Proof that the servants stories were only tangentially added on and most likely a ham-fisted attempt to mimic the structure of ITV’s recently departed hit Downton Abbey. Otherwise, there’s a lot of pretty costumes and sets to look at, if that’s your thing (it’s definitely mine), and I eventually got over how weird Jenna Coleman’s fake blue contacts look.

    • Traci says:

      Thank you so much for this comment! I thought it was just me, but…

      There were many times I mentally wandered during the episode and that is a sure sign to me that either a.) the writing is a little off or b.) the performances are off. I particularly single out the servant subplot which, although well intentioned, is rather pointless. I found myself asking many times, “Haven’t we seen this type of subplot in a thousand other English dramas? Why is it here? How does it move the story forward?” Because…it didn’t.

      Victoria is one of my favourite English queens, however, and Coleman’s portrayal is interesting so I will continue. Sewell is wonderful as Lord Melbourne. His portrayal gives humanity to one of the more interesting figures in English history because this is the man who had Lady Caroline Lamb for a wife. I hope Episode Two is a bit better.

  9. Maria says:

    I have two things to nitpick about this review. The first is I wish critic Maureen Ryan had not compared it with The Crown and just really critiqued it with as a separate show on its on merits. Its understandable there will be comparisons but its a different show, cast, era. Thank you for giving Jenna Coleman praise for her performance along with Rufus Sewell and Tom Hughes. They earned it. The second is a correction. This series was not based on a novel but from the diaries of Queen Victoria. Author Daisy Goodwin and actress Jenna Coleman had mentioned reading the late Queen’s diaries as part of their research. The novel came afterwards when the series concluded in the UK. Please research a little better.

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