The Young Victoria, a tame, tasteful biopic of England’s longest-ruling monarch, tries to take advantage of the fact that the audience knows the results of its royal romance. Victoria reigned as a widow twice as long as she did a wife, and wore black for the rest of her life following the 1861 death of Albert, her prince consort and father of her nine children. Jean-Marc Vallée’s well-cast period piece wants us to root for Victoria and Albert, two plucky teens, to marry and outwit the scheming forces of the English and Belgian courts.
As the only heir to the English throne, Victoria (Emily Blunt) grows up in constricting splendor, even required to hold hands with someone while using staircases out of concern for her safety. The Young Victoria isn’t shy about showing close-ups of metal bars and delivering lines like “Even a palace can be a prison” to hammer home its themes. Her grasping mother (Miranda Richardson) and wicked, dog-kicking stepfather Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes’ bad guy) try to coerce Victoria into signing over her powers to them in the event of the ailing king’s (Jim Broadbent) death.
Rupert Friend plays modest, mustachioed Albert, dispatched by the king of Belgium to woo Victoria to influence the future monarch. The young pair flirts over chess games and chaperoned walks in lavish gardens. Compared to the overheated melodrama of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth films, The Young Victoria turns down the thermostat, but still finds a symbol of feminist self-realization in a queen’s rise to power over a male-dominated system. Blunt often plays sardonic young women in films such as Sunshine Cleaning, and her natural shrewdness conveys the steely resolve under Victoria’s youthful naiveté.
The film tries to balance the gender politics with an almost fairytale-level love story between star-crossed young people. Even when Victoria takes power, she still struggles to avoid being a pawn of rival political figures, chiefly Paul Bettany’s dashing Lord Melbourne. Constitutional crises erupt over issues that seem arcane and trivial to modern audiences. (Ironically, Judi Dench’s Victoria film, Mrs. Brown, recounted lesser historical episodes but explored more compelling emotional conflicts.)
Victoria and Albert’s ability to eventually find strength in each other can warm audiences’ hearts, but provides only modest drama along the way. Great actors such as Richardson and Broadbent seem underutilized, but Friend credibly plays Albert as an easily underestimated Prince Charming. Films about the English royals reliably put a lot of pomp on the big screen, and The Young Victoria suggests the surprising notion that behind every great woman stands a man.
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