WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Thrust upon the throne at a tender age, Princess Victoria fights off the self-serving attentions of her mother and her mother’s secretary to prove she is a woman with her own mind. However, juggling affairs of state and affairs of the heart is a far from simple task, especially when it’s difficult to know which suitors are genuine and which are only out for career advancement.
The United Kingdom is at a crossroads. King William IV (Jim Broadbent) is ailing and has no legitimate children to succeed him, leaving seventeen-year-old niece Princess Victoria (Emily Blunt) first in line to the throne. But Victoria herself is unwell, unable to walk downstairs without her hand being held and barely able to reject the passionate demands of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her financial comptroller Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) that she submits to a Regency in the event of the King’s death.
What’s more, Victoria’s Uncle Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), King of Belgium, has designs to strengthen his position in Europe by marrying her off to Saxe-Coburg Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). On the other hand, Victoria has lived most of her life in the knowledge that she is due to become Queen, so when Albert comes calling with rehearsed pleasantries she is more than ready for them, although they develop a friendship and agree to write to one another.
Alongside royal intrigues – William cannot abide his sister-in-law’s abuse of power at Kensington Palace – come political matters, where Victoria is willing to take advice from charming Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), though this comes at the expense of relationships with the Tories under Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney). The inevitable happens and Victoria becomes Queen, moving into Buckingham Palace; yet she remains alone, leaning on Melbourne for guidance, as Albert hears without pleasure in Victoria’s letters. He returns to England to try to press his cause, but as someone once said, the path of true love never did run smooth; and Victoria’s apparent favouring of Melbourne causes a constitutional crisis that brings a braying populace to the Palace gates.
The turbulent lives of royalty have been dramatic staples going all the way back to the birth of drama, from the Greeks through to Shakespeare; and in the cinema, British monarchs have rarely been more fashionable, whether it’s Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and its sequel, The Oscar-laden King’s Speech or Madonna’s distinctly less successful W.E. Even with embellishment, Victoria’s life doesn’t lend itself to an epic scale; so instead – and quite wisely – The Young Victoria aims for Jane Austen-style romance with a smidgen of politics on top, Victoria’s position mirroring contemporary British issues concerning the monarch’s constitutional position and variable popularity (see The Queen and The King’s Speech).
The good news is that for the most part, the film works quite nicely, thanks to a thoroughly assured performance by Blunt in the title role and a dependable supporting turn from Friend as her suitor. Both reveal determined streaks that belie their outward youth and delicacy, enabling them to withstand pressure from all quarters; if the villains are slightly pantomimic, it’s more a problem with the script than the acting, since Miranda Richardson and Mark Strong are both very good.
The less good news is that the film frequently looks and sounds like a glossy TV movie. Surprisingly for a script by Julian Downton Abbey Fellowes, a number of unfortunate modernisms creep in – I’m not sure ‘It’s like this endless examination’ is an idiom 19th Century royalty would have used much; and the shot at the Coronation ball in which Victoria feels the full rush of love, the background receding and her dress fluttering in the sudden breeze, is silly, inappropriate and naïve. Harriet Walter also overdoes the Teutonic accent, though this may be historically accurate.
Then there’s the already-mentioned embellishment of the facts which helps to create the requisite conflicts in our characters’ minds. Believe it or not, Lord Melbourne wasn’t really as dashing, charming and Wickham-like as Paul Bettany makes him here (as in Wimbledon, he fills in as an ersatz Hugh Grant); he was actually forty years Victoria’s senior, and in any case the notion of a romantic attraction between monarch and Prime Minister is fanciful in the extreme.
Also, Albert wasn’t actually at the Coronation, and he wasn’t actually shot, though an attempt was made on Victoria’s life. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t play too fast and loose with the truth as I understand it, and you can see why the facts have been tinkered with to better suit the flow of the plot. Incidentally, if the mentions of Flora Hastings seem to go nowhere, it’s because her scandal was cut from the theatrical release.
The Young Victoria is not a film which delves deep into the true history, politics or psychology of the characters it shows us, and is perhaps a soppier and more sanitised tale than it might have been under a less involved producer than Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York. However, whilst it’s easy to sneer at the project and some of its sillier moments – is it me, or does Leopold spend all his time walking round his gardens? – the film also contains some lovely performances and is definitely worth catching, even if it’s just to see Blunt catching her reflection in the mirror.