“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.