Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Review #217: The Young Victoria
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson

He has been instructed in every detail of her likes and dislikes in advance. Indeed this instruction has formed the core of his own education and defined his purpose in life, according to his uncle, the Belgian King Leopold, who has a very long-range plan for keeping the English on his side. But when Albert (Rupert Friend, the tousle-haired star of Cherie) dutifully walks in the garden with Victoria (Emily Blunt) for the first time, he finds he likes the English crown princess much more than he expected. This prompts him to blurt out the truth: he really prefers the composer Schubert, even though he knows she does not. Stronger and more astute than most adults around her suppose, Victoria grasps this burst of sincerity at once, allows she “doesn’t mind” Schubert, and something sparks between them. As will be the case at a number of pivotal moments, in this telling of history integrity proves to be very sexy.

When England’s Queen Victoria had her coronation in 1837 at the age of 18, among the more well-placed in the audience in Westminster Cathedral was an obscure, nearly penniless but well-born German prince named Albert, who was actually her first cousin. Albert was only a bit older than she and, despite the thicket of relentless intrigues surrounding them both, the two had found their way into a clearing of sorts and actually seem to have married for love. Victoria ruled until she was 81, though she lost Albert when he was only 42 to typhoid in 1861. They had nine children and their descendants eventually populated the royal families of eight other European nations. Albert and Victoria also championed reforms in education, welfare and industry, and supported the arts and sciences.

The Young Victoria focuses on a brief but crucial slice of this monarch’s long life, framed by her courtship and the early years of her marriage to Albert. There is a prologue – Victoria as a sheltered, lonely princess with little company other than her dog Dash and her governess, Baroness Lehzen (Jeanette Hain) to relieve the rigid regime imposed by her mother, the bitter, out-of-favor Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) at the instigation of her bullying advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), whose scheme is to force Victoria to sign over her rights to the throne and name her mother Regent. And there is an epilogue of sorts, in which we see a forty-ish Victoria, just widowed, laying out Albert’s clothing in the morning, as she would do each day for the remainder of her life.

But the body of the film concerns how these two attractive young people escape together from a life-time as pawns of the power brokers around them and, each having the same impulse, address the idea – quite radical to their would-be keepers – that a sovereign’s job might be the well-being of their people. In another of those pivotal moments, Victoria – who has just told her advisor Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) that she has seen “suffering” among her people, which concern Melbourne rebuffs as tinkering with the natural place of the “rabble” – already fond of Albert, warms further to his ideas that workers might be housed more humanely than has happened in the midst of too-rapid industrial growth. Enboldened by her encouragement, he sketches out an architectural plan he has been thinking about for her and she asks if she may keep it.

Now this might seem about as romantic as getting a washing machine for Valentine’s Day. But part of this film’s achievement is making a distant era with what now seem like quite rigid and insular social interactions emotionally intelligible. Albert’s presence in Victoria’s life to begin with is nothing if not coldly calculated, but we share his – and her – growing delight and amazement at what he finds there.

The Young Victoria also manages to provide us with some basic history that goes down pretty easy. As Albert is instructed in who the players are in the English court – besides eventual Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, there’s Lord Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, and the Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) – who their allies are and the nature of their policy leanings, so are we. This is not intricate and detailed history here. But you come away knowing a fair bit more than you might have before and having learned it painlessly. For many of us, the Victorian era is interminably long, brocade-stiff, and associated with repression of every sort. Fittingly, that era is often dramatized in this film by one character putting another soundly in their place. But together, Albert and Victoria loosened some of those places up a bit, and watching that is a treat.

This review appears in the 12/24/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. “The Young Victoria” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Christmas Day. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle, where Nancy's other arts coverage can be found at www.cnylink.com - click A&E. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.