Monday, March 5, 2012

Movie Review: "The Young Victoria" by David Pretty

Hello, Royal Subjects!

When people think of Queen Victoria they often visualize a dour, taciturn, implacable figure who seemed completely devoid of mirth.  Rarely have we seen depictions of the long-reigning monarch as a young, vibrant, gregarious woman full of life and driven by passion.  The Young Victoria attempts to remedy this deficit with mixed results.

Regardless of the film's overall merits, you certainly can't deny that it's lavishly detailed and beautifully photographed, as evidenced by the film's stunning trailer:

Emily Blunt plays the obstinate young regent-in-waiting.  Her ambitious mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) keeps her in a protective bubble and waits for the day when her daughter will yield to the auspices of Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).  A military man, Conroy attempts to intimidate the young potentiate into naming him her personal secretary which would effectively allow him to become the true power behind the English throne.  But even when bedridden by illness, Victoria remains resolute.

Meanwhile, her uncle King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) is desperately trying to broker an alliance with England.  Knowing that her chaperones hold little sway over her, Leopold dispatches his nephew Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) to her estate in the hope that she'll become smitten with him.  Unfortunately Albert's been so heavily coached to parrot Victoria's likings that she's initially put off by this blatant patronage.  Eventually, she warms up to him after he begins speaking for himself and the following exchange occurs:

Prince Albert: Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.
Princess Victoria: You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?
Prince Albert: I should find one to play it with you, not for you.

Their relationship deepens, even after King William appoints the charismatic Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) as her chief advisor just prior to his death.  Initially she's charmed by Melbourne's wit and confidence, but her unquestioning loyalty to him eventually leads to charges of favoritism and political instability.  Minor hiccups persist even after Albert returns to her court and the two are married.

The Young Victoria is truly a sight to behold.  The costumes are incredibly authentic and the decision to film exclusively in England was certainly wise.  Canadian film-maker Jean-Marc Vallée and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski do a masterful job setting up field of depth in every shot and cramming every frame with sumptuous detail.  Vallée infuses the film with tremendous verve by giving us a host of creative angles, dynamic camera motion and excellent blocking with the actors.

Speaking of the actors, Emily Blunt has her hands full in the role of Victoria but she deftly navigates through a demanding character arc.  At first she's overwhelmed by her royal lineage and rails against the "porcelain doll" treatment.  She begins to exhibit a hidden reserve of strength when she stands in defense of her uncle the King.  After she assumes the mantle of Queen, Blunt is tasked to switch gears which she does convincingly.  It's fascinating to watch her tap into a hidden well of strength which she discovers through her relationship with Albert and Lord Melbourne.  Every step in this performance is self-assured, particularly in scenes when she's asked to be tentative.  

Rupert Friend is equally fantastic as Prince Albert.  He does a convincing job of going from an obliged,  mealy-mouthed suitor to someone genuinely captivated by Victoria's charms.  When his awkward conversational programming fails him and he's forced to abandon all pretense we can instantly see the effect this has on the Queen.  His task in the second half of the film is equally difficult: to act as a Victorian man who's traditional role in the relationship has been reversed.  In fact, Friend treats this challenge even more deftly then the script allows.

Other performances of note include a delightfully irascible Jim Broadbent as King William IV.  Broadbent insures that the aging monarch's dottiness is offset by the genuine rancor he feels after witnessing his niece being used as political bargaining chip.  The always-awesome Miranda Richardson is appropriately conflicted as the Duchess of Kent.  Like many women of her time, she's forced to be motivated by financial concerns but Richardson really sells the turmoil that results over being at loggerheads with her daughter.

Paul Bettany is also superb as Lord Melbourne.  Since he's resolute, independently-minded and conversationally agile, he makes for an excellent potential foil for Albert.  Mark Strong also deserves a nod for his portrayal of Sir John Conroy.  Whereas the Duchess is acutely aware of the effect her decisions have on her daughter, Conroy has no such sensitivities.  Translation: for the first half the film he gets to be the sort of ripe bastard that this story really needed to be successful.  Unfortunately, the script (and history, presumably) sees his role vastly diminished in the movie's later half.

Which leads me to the main problem with the film.  Unlike say, Elizabeth, where the stakes continue to ramp up, the drama really fizzles out here at the mid-way point.  The political conflict sparked off by Victoria's partisan reliance on Melbourne's judgement is hardly what I'd call riveting.  Three-quarters of the way through the film, the film's only real antagonist is given his walking papers.  The tension that develops between Victoria and Albert over their anachronistic gender roles comes off as over-inflated.  Even the assassination attempt on the Queen's life is a blatant fictional forgery.

Perhaps there's a reason why prior pictures have eschewed earlier depictions of Victoria's life.  There just isn't enough drama and conflict to make for an entirely successful feature-length film.  Frankly, I was much more interested in the questions posited by the final title card which insists that the Queen went on to champion education, welfare and industrial reforms.  Immediately I wanted to see how this jibed with the period's reputation for widespread sexual repression, workplace abuse, prostitution and abject poverty.

Sadly, The Young Victoria is a pretty and well-acted film, but there's just not a lot going on underneath that sparkly crown.

Tilt: down.

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