The image most have of Queen Victoria is of a stern, taciturn old lady dressed in black, representing the repression that’s become synonymous with her name and the era she’s come to symbolize. But the Victoria of this film is very different—a girl who, as heiress-apparent to the British crown, was manipulated by her mother (and her consort Sir John Conroy) for their own purposes, and whom, even after ascending the throne at eighteen, others tried to control. Emily Blunt may not bear much of a physical resemblance to the young monarch, but she skillfully captures her mixture of cleverness and naivete, and Rupert Friend matches her well as Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whom his uncle Leopold of Belgium pushed forward as a suitor but who became not the king’s instrument in England but the queen’s loving husband and helpmate.
As written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, “Victoria” has the feel of a plush Masterpiece Theatre episode, but an enjoyable one. Even though some of the bigger moments (like the coronation) appear a mite constricted, it’s exceedingly well-appointed, with exquisite production design (Patrice Vermette), art direction (Paul Inglis, Christopher Lowe and Alexandra Walker), costumes (Sandy Powell) and makeup (Jenny Shircote); and the sumptuous locations, inside and out, have been luxuriously photographed in widescreen by Hagen Bogdanski. And the visuals are nicely complemented by Ilan Eshkeri’s background score.
The cast seem to have taken to the period trappings. Blunt is clearly at center stage, capturing both the pre-crown Victoria’s feeling of claustrophobia and her drive to succeed on her own as queen, and Friend matches her nicely as the stiff young man who comes to court, in both senses, out of a feeling of obligation to his uncle but quickly grows enamoured of the girl; the long-distance correspondence between them as Victoria debates the wisdom of taking a husband and Albert’s feelings become more pronounced, is particularly well handled.
But the couple are not the only ones to watch. Paul Bettany strikes the right tone of quietly unctuous deference, masking a calculating political mind, as Lord Melbourne, whose avuncular attitude toward the young queen keeps him in power even as her attachment to him causes her a loss of popularity. Miranda Richardson conveys the uncertain emotions of Victoria’s mother, whose treatment of her daughter is largely controlled by her ambitious consort Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, a proper villain). But the best of the secondary lot are certainly Jim Broadbent as Victoria’s dying uncle King William—a garrulous, hot-tempered fellow with a soft spot for the girl—and Harriet Walter as his wife, a refined woman who offers Victoria some sage advice regarding Albert. Fleetingly amusing moments are also provided by Michael Maloney and Julian Glover as Melbourne’s parliamentary foes, Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington.
“The Young Victoria” doesn’t escape the plush, traditional romanticism of its Masterpiece Theatre mentality; it treats the royals of the nineteenth century with a sort of benign awe, and is especially contemptuous of a fellow like Conroy, who was trying to worm his way into their enchanted circle and violate its sanctity. (Fellowes doesn’t demonstrate the wit of Peter Morgan in dealing with such people, nor frankly does Vallee the dexterity of Stephen Frears.) And you have to be ready for the massaging of historical fact for dramatic effect. (Victoria and Albert were the targets of a gunman in 1840, shortly after they were married. But he was not severely wounded as shown here—in fact, both shots missed—and the notion that his courage ended a domestic and political contretemps with his new wife is a stretch.) But it works as an old-fashioned wallow in nineteenth-century British royal romance and parliamentary infighting.