The Young Victoria (Apparition, PG)

film_victoria_sm.gifThere’s so much to enjoy in The Young Victoria that it’s worth overlooking the occasionally clunky screenplay.

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You may be used to thinking of Queen Victoria as the stern old lady with scepter and orb portrayed in Sir Thomas Brock’s Victoria Memorial (or the similarly forbidding visage gracing the Sapphire Bombay Gin label), but like all of us she was young once. Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria takes a look at her life in the years just before and after she became Queen of England. While it probably won’t be anyone’s choice for Best Picture, it certainly is worth seeing for Emily Blunt’s radiant performance as Victoria and for the eye-popping recreations of life and ritual at the English court.

Director Vallée achieves a tone somewhere between Masterpiece Theatre and Twilight. Victoria was raised under a draconian system of rules called "the Kensington system" by her mother the Dutchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), an attendant of the Dutchess who may also have been her lover. Keeping Victoria isolated from other children and not even allowing her to walk down the stairs unaided to sleep in a room of her own, they appear as the wicked witch and evil vizier from a gothic fairytale who show their true colors when try to force Victoria to sign papers appointing them as Regents until she reaches the age of 25.

Fortunately, Victoria has a mind of her own and not only resists these efforts, but as soon as she becomes Queen at age 18, wastes no time in banishing both her mother and Conroy from her presence. She has allies at court as well, including the outspoken William IV (Jim Broadbent), and finds a kindred spirit in the handsome Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Rupert Friend) whom she will marry. Continuing the gothic motif, Albert plays the role of Prince Charming, although he does not so much rescue Victoria as join her in partnership, setting a much better example for impressionable young people everywhere.

Growing up among such intrigues must have been good preparation for court politics as well as the national and international variety, because Victoria reigned longer than any other British monarch and presided over one of the greatest periods in British history. She also produced nine children before Albert’s premature death at the age of 42, no small feat in the days when every pregnancy carried a significant risk of death. But like anyone at the start of their career, Victoria had to learn the job of being a monarch, something we get to observe when she overcomes her early dependence on Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and works out which courtiers to trust and which to shun.

Anglophiles in particular will find much to enjoy in The Young Victoria, beginning with spectacular cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski (who also shot The Lives of Others), although he does tend to over-indulge in tight frames and shallow depth of field. Many historic locations are used, including Belvoir Castle and Ditchley Park (stand-ins for Windsor Castle), Lancaster House (doubling for Buckingham Castle), Lincoln Cathedral and Blenheim Palace. Costumes by Sandy Powell are splendid as are art decoration by Paul Inglis, set decoration by Maggie Gray, and hair and makeup by a whole staff of designers and artists. Many of the scenes are as carefully composed as paintings and the closing frames seem intended to serve as a final portrait of the Queen and Prince Consort in love.

The weak link in The Young Victoria is the script by Julian Fellowes, an industry veteran who’s certainly capable of better things: He won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park, a beautifully plotted period movie. But The Young Victoria sags seriously in the middle and assumes more knowledge of English history than is common outside that country: I’m sure most Americans will be wondering why such a fuss was made about the ladies in waiting and what Sir Robert Peel had to do with it. Fellowes also pulls a cheap trick by inventing an incident—Albert wounded in the defense of Victoria—to bring their conflict over his role to a tidy conclusion. He hammers a bit too hard on the chess metaphor as well, although it does serve as an apt model for the power struggles at court.

There’s also a problem which is almost inevitable when watching a film about any powerful historical person: That little voice in your head which says things like, "Leopold of Belgium—wasn’t he the guy who treated the Congo like his personal piggy bank?" and "Victoria as a champion of the poor—didn’t she try to block food aid reaching the starving Irish?" (Both are true.)

But there’s so much to enjoy in The Young Victoria that it’s worth overlooking the occasionally clunky screenplay. Harry Potter fans will recognize real-life models for Hogwarts, while teenage girls can enjoy watching one of their own growing into an independent woman without having to choose between love and power. The fact that the closing credits roll over Sinead O’Connor singing "Only You" (which is more ooey-gooey than anything in the film proper) I take as evidence that the young and romantic are a key market for The Young Victoria. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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