Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Our synopses reveal the plot in full, including surprise twists
Great Britain, 1837. King William IV sits on the throne but his niece Princess Victoria of Kent is the sole heir. An overprotected young woman, she lives with her mother, the Duchess of Kent and her advisor, Sir John Conroy. Both conspire to force Victoria to sign a regency order so that they may rule entire she is of legal age should the King die before then. Conroy and her mother keep Victoria away from the King’s court, apparently for her own protection. Leopold, the King of the Belgians, wants to engineer a marriage between his nephew, Albert and Victoria (who is Albert’s cousin) in order to protect his throne. He sends Albert to Great Britain to woo Victoria. They bond over their mutual loneliness and manipulation by others.
Victoria finds an ally in the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. King William IV publicly denounces the Duchess for keeping Victoria from court. The King dies shortly after and Victoria succeeds to the throne. Lord Melbourne arranges Victoria’s staff, which causes concern in Parliament. When Lord Melbourne loses the general election, Victoria refuses to accept Robert Peel’s request to make her court less partisan, which triggers a constitutional crisis. Victoria overcomes her self-doubt, criticising Lord Melbourne for his manipulating her to further his own agenda. Albert returns and proposes marriage, which Victoria accepts. Victoria soon becomes pregnant. Albert asserts his authority at court by putting Lord Melbourne in his place and he then prevents an assassination attempt against Victoria.
From producers Martin Scorsese and Graham King, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (‘Gosford Park’) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) comes an Anglo-American production of one of the most glorious ages in the history of the British monarchy. This is no history lesson though. Of course it examines the political and constitutional issues that surrounded the coronation of the young Queen Victoria, but this takes second billing to the courtship between Victoria and her cousin, Albert. What we have is therefore a tale of star-crossed lovers, initially forced together for political expediency, but who created a loving and romantic marriage. Whether this film has one eye on the growing female demographic and the success of romantic drama films rather than history buffs with an interest in the subject is up for question, but certainly the emphasis of the narrative gives this impression.
The film fills in the blanks both in the opening and closing titles for those not familiar with the history of the time. Victoria is the sole heir to the throne, with King William IV not expected to live much longer, though there’s conveniently no mention of his ten illegitimate children, though of course they weren’t eligible to take the throne. To be fair, the film makers tackle the problems of Victoria’s youth, knowing that only she can keep the monarchy intact in its present form; her life is suffocating, watched at all times, personally escorted up/down stairs in case of an accident. Given the circumstances, there were inevitable political machinations, though the film suggests there’s no-one more dangerous to Victoria’s personal welfare than her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her adviser (and presumably lover), the pantomime villain of the film, Sir John Conroy, who intimidates and strikes fear into the heart of Victoria to force her to sign the Regency Act. Of course Victoria eventually plucks up the courage to reject his demands. It’s simple characterisation of course, with no attempts to create any depth, but I suppose that’s what works best for the film.
The intrigues that brought Victoria and Albert together are depicted; both are pawns in the political games of their families (both the Duchess/Conroy and Leopold, Albert’s uncle encouraged the courtship), a metaphor which is explained with zero subtlety during a chess game between the couple, as Victoria asks whether Albert feels like a piece in a chess game played against his will? Albert’s witty response is to learn how to play the game better than they can. Both of course develop a tentative courtship although they effectively betray the wishes of their respective families – Albert is expected to spy on his future wife and return juicy information about politics, which he refuses to. Whilst politics and circumstances keeps them apart, what I assume to be a pretty fictional set of correspondence between the two develops, and to maintain tension there’s the relationship Victoria shares with the liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Melbourne was some forty years older, but played by the dashing Paul Bettany, he’s shown almost to be a romantic rival to Albert, with numerous references to his reputation as a seducer. Melbourne has his own agenda, manipulating and flattering Victoria just as much as those he warns her against. An example; Melbourne tells Victoria how courageous and wonderful a man her father (whom she never knew) was, then Vallée cuts to Peel, Melbourne’s political rival describing her father as a brute to a political colleague. This plot development is rather easily resolved though, with Melbourne’s true colours being revealed and his pomposity and arrogance deflated by a socially progressive Victoria and Albert, and Melbourne of course takes this with typically good grace.
‘The Young Victoria’ is an incredibly tasteful film. Everything about it looks sumptuous and obviously great care has been taken to reflect the period detail. However as a drama, I’m not sure it overly convinces. Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend make an attractive but ultimately tepid couple, making it difficult for you to care whether they ultimately pair up or not. Jim Broadbent makes an ebullient King William IV whilst Mark Strong makes a good fist of his role as the villain of the piece. This is almost completely conventional film-making with not a risk in sight. Vallée’s previous feature ‘C.R.A.Z.Y.’ has a reputation as a complex family drama, so it’s a shame that here, no doubt at the behest of his producers, that he plays it so safe, as if the film’s been developed according to a precise formula. There’s one impressively shot moment when Victoria sees Albert again after a long period away, and she appears to float across, reflecting her perspective rather than her actual movements. That’s as far as Vallée goes with adding some visual trickery to what is otherwise a pretty inert drama, that will inevitably find an audience but never feels anything better than prospective middlebrow Oscar-bait.