Friday, February 12, 2010

The Young Victoria

PG Rating:75%
(Thematic elements, mild language and sensuality)
Picky Flicks Quote: "The Young Victoria is a sumptuous character study that takes its time charting the transformation of a young girl born to rule into a queen ready to rule."
-Bob Bloom, Journal and Courier
RUNTIME: 1hr. 45 mins. for complete details
Movie Mood:

The Young Victoria is a gorgeous, if slightly sluggish, period piece that focuses on—as the title implies—the young Queen Victoria of England in the years just before and immediately following her ascent to the throne. Emily Blunt as Victoria does a wonderful job of making the young princess both relatable and sympathetic. Victoria’s life is sheltered, to put it mildly (she’s not allowed to descend the stairs without someone’s accompanying her to hold her hand), and Blunt ably portrays the emotions of an intelligent young woman who reluctantly acknowledges the necessity of the bonds of decorum and royalty even while she chafes under them.

The movie really gets rolling as Victoria’s eighteenth birthday approaches. Her uncle, King William, is ailing, and Victoria’s mother, the scheming Duchess of Kent, and her controlling advisor, Sir John Conroy, are pressuring the girl to sign a document of regency which would abdicate her ruling powers until her twenty-fifth birthday. During the interim, her mother would rule as regent, which really means that Sir John would rule. I don’t know whether Sir John is vilified or if he really is as calculating and explosively bad-tempered as the movie would have us believe, but it’s easy to see how the prospect of undeserved power could go to an ambitious man’s head, making him both bolder and crueler than usual.

Still, Victoria is surprisingly resistant for being so young and cosseted. She steadfastly refuses to sign her name to the contract, and King William, who despises both Victoria’s mother and Sir John, manages to hold out until his niece’s birthday. At the tender age of eighteen, Victoria is crowned queen of England and makes it her first official order of business to banish both her mother and Sir John to a remote palace apartment. It’s a move which, although understable given the strained nature of their relationship, leaves her without advisors and makes her easy prey for those who would seek to control her (i.e. practically everyone in English government).

Meanwhile, another uncle, Leopold, king of Belgium, seeks to curry her favor by sending her handsome, charmingly soft-spoken cousin, Albert, to woo her. Albert is different than most of the men that Victoria has encountered in her short life (and there have not been many; Sir John has made sure of it). Instead of ordering her around, he inquires about her preferences and desires and encourages her to follow her own instincts. Victoria is intrigued by his gentle manner and lack of artifice and grants him permission to write her. Still, despite her interest, she’s less than eager to marry, anticipating instead years of rule without limits, without anyone telling her what to do (a most na├»ve expectation indeed).

Ironically, even as Victoria seeks to distance herself from those who would control her, she becomes involved with the rakish Lord Melbourne, England’s Prime Minister of the moment, who uses his manly wiles on the guileless young queen to win both her affections (whether she realizes it or not, she has a bit of a crush on him) and her confidence. Although the movie paints Lord Melbourne as self-serving, he is neither malicious nor overbearing. And much of his advice is sound. Still, whether she realizes it or not, Victoria is still not making her own decisions, a fact that frustrates the ever more smitten Albert.

In an interesting reversal of roles, Albert, the penniless royal, is at the mercy of Victoria’s whims and cannot go to her unless invited. He may not initiate any offers at all, in fact, including the proposal of marriage that it’s soon evident he longs to extend. He must simply watch helplessly as “Lord M” (Victoria’s affectionate title for Lord Melbourne) maneuvers Victoria around the complicated chessboard of royal and parliamentary politics.

Albert’s chance finally comes after Victoria’s devotion to Lord M earns her the disdain of both the opposing parliamentary party and the common people, and she reaches out to her cousin, inviting him for an extended stay and then admitting that she has been arrogant to keep him at arm's length and treat his good advice lightly. Soon, the royal wedding bells are ringing, signaling the start of twenty years of wedded bliss…or so the movie would have us believe.

The film does have the honesty to follow the young couple’s relationship into the first several months of their marriage as Albert struggles with his role (he doesn’t have one) and Victoria’s continued reliance on Lord M’s advice. During one especially tense (and mildly humorous) scene, Victoria orders her husband to stay in the room, shrieking, “I am your queen!” Albert, to his credit, makes a calm exit, explaining that he has no desire for his newly pregnant wife to harm their unborn child with her theatrics.

The Young Victoria tries at times for a level of high drama which it simply cannot sustain and to which it isn’t suited. But it soars when it focuses on the young lovers and their significant little exchanges: a quiet, conspiratorial game of chess, their lively letters, a horseback romp through the countryside in the drenching rain. Rarely has such a decorous love affair been so sweetly appealing, and the actors’ share a gently smoldering chemistry that befits the restraint of the time period and makes their marriage all the more fulfilling.

The Young Victoria is, above all else, a romance, and at this it excels. It’s also not a bad history lesson (although certain liberties were taken to make it more appealing to a modern day audience), not to mention some seriously beautiful eye candy (Buckingham palace is particularly awe-inspiring). Ultimately, it’s both a respectful and entertaining peek at the beginning of the longest reign in the history of British monarchy and at a love that helped to shape the woman who wore the crown for sixty-three years. Until next Wednesday, stay picky! Your mind will thank you later.

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