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The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009)


     Even if it’s a bit less than thrilling, Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria is to be commended for taking the high road. This classy costume drama, which chronicles the years immediately before and after British Queen Victoria’s ascendency to the throne, minimizes soap-opera antics. Instead, it focuses on the young queen’s struggle to define herself in an antagonistic environment. It’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in that respect, and it shares that movie’s posh production values, but Vallée can’t quite capture the ethereal qualities that made Coppola’s film unique among the genre. Throughout, he situates his heroine, played by Emily Blunt, in a series of meticulously manicured environments, stressing the structures that constrain her, even as he works to make this major historical figure seem marginalized and approachable.  

     The Young Victoria, like its fledgling protagonist takes a while to come into its own. The movie’s first half-hour is a bit overdetermined, struggling to familiarize viewers with a slew of biographical detail. Subtitles are used at the start of each scene to tell us where and when we are. A series of character actors (Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter, Miranda Richardson, Paul Bettany, etc…) are introduced in rapid succession. In these early scenes, Julian Fellowes’ script crams in so much historical incident and so many subsidiary characters that some depth, and some elegance, is sacrificed. To accommodate this much information, the style at first appears too aggressive. Edits occur as gates slam or as a close-up in one location transports us to another. A constant, overcompensating momentum threatens to stifle the story. As the movie progresses, and things settle down, however, Vallée’s direction improves, even if it never achieves sublimity. His filmmaking’s defining characteristic here is nothing more than its own steadiness.  

     When The Young Victoria begins, it spends a great deal of energy detailing the aspirant Queen’s sheltered life. Interesting subsidiary details abound, even as the struggle to displace her through a regency order takes center stage. We learn that she had to hold an adult’s hand whenever she walked up or down stairs and that she was disallowed modern novels until she turned seventeen. As the drama that took place around the time of her coronation plays out, her rookie mistakes are laid out and lessons are learned. Much is made about her choice of advisors, and even more comes about due to her choice of attendants. This squabbling hardly seems the stuff that defines great monarchs, but such low-key drama prefigures the domestic focus that is to come.  

     Later, it’s her courtship of Prince Albert and her establishment of her household that occupies the movie. There are moments here, as pressure is put on Victoria to marry, that threaten to push this into the same territory as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, but this movie is both gentler and brighter than that one. There are political maneuverings here, but they are simplified to the extent that the chief villain, Sir John Conroy, has flies buzzing about him and kicks small dogs. Vallée’s film is neither as visually or dramatically ostentatious as Kapur’s, preferring to espouse simple values and self-realization over sex, intrigue, and betrayal. 

     Indeed, The Young Victoria becomes most interesting in the ways it resists the easy temptations of the modern royal biopic, opting to humanize the Queen whenever possible. Victoria is not shown shouting at advisors, but we do see her skipping down the hallway after her first meeting with them. Her resistance to marriage initially seems to be painting her as a feminist figure, but before long it’s her willingness to admit her weakness and marry that supposedly defines her maturity. Sequences, such as the one in which she fawns over the newly christened Buckingham Palace, give the movie a retrograde charm, but certainly make it feel less than progressive. 

     Blunt is a witty actress, and seems a natural casting decision to play royalty. The drama here to some degree depends on Victoria’s defiance, but it’s difficult not to wish that this film played to Blunt’s strengths as an actress, and gave her even more opportunities to be imposing and haughty. As The Young Victoria settles into a warm domesticity, a procession of events begins to overtake some of the drama and personality that she worked to generate. The one moment in which Victoria asserts herself, surprising her husband with a royal tantrum, is unsurprisingly Blunt’s best.  

     Perhaps, there’s not that much in the actual young Victoria’s life that lends itself to drama. As is, Fellowes’ screenplay has to contrive a gunshot injury for Prince Albert, so his Queen can discover how much she adores him (the assassination attempts were real, his injury was not). There’s only so much territory that Vallée can cover here, since Victoria’s later life was given rather definitive treatment in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. What is left over from Victoria’s history seems rather quaint, resulting in a movie that is well-meaning, and certainly well-mounted, but somewhat devoid of real excitement.



Jeremy Heilman