— by JOEL CRARY —
Teenagers crave the freedom to make their own decisions and live their own lives away from their guardians, who couldn’t possibly know better. In Princess Victoria’s case, she knew better. She saw that she was in a position to be taken advantage of and refused to sign a Regency order that would pass over eventual control of her kingdom to her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and comptroller Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who already controlled the Duchess’ finances. When Victoria became Queen upon her uncle’s death in the early hours of June 20, 1837, she promptly moved into Buckingham Palace. Most 18-year-olds would settle for a room in a shared split-level.
Victoria is played by recent Golden Globe nominee Emily Blunt, a completely captivating actor who carries the royal bearing with ease. Rupert Friend plays her cousin and future spouse Prince Albert, son of King Leopold of Belgium. Over a game of chess, Albert tells Victoria to avoid being used as a pawn by those who appear to wish her well, mostly men who jockey for positions of power and no doubt feel emasculated by this young woman’s ability and forthrightness. Jim Broadbent makes a terrific appearance as the ailing King William, who uses the time he has left to violently chastise the Regency for their greed. Paul Bettany, one of my favourite actors, plays Lord Melbourne, prime minister, political adviser and suggested Great Seducer of Victoria. All do a fantastic job.
Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the much acclaimed “C.R.A.Z.Y.” in 2005, here lets a lot of his scenes fade in to one another dreamily, sustaining a palpable fascination with royalty and how it could all come crashing down over the slightest bit of controversy. Along with “The Lives of Others” cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, he incorporates striking variations of focus on lines of people and wine glasses to evoke lineage, the central obsession of all concerned. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who wrote films of similar period ilk such as “Gosford Park” and “Vanity Fair,” takes certain liberties with the historical material for dramatic purposes, though perhaps not the right kind to really pump life into the narrative.
Thanks to the brilliant score composed by Ilan Eshkeri and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, “The Young Victoria” has a steady, alluring flow. It is the best symphonic work I’ve heard in a film this year, taking scenes that may have otherwise meandered and bringing them near the level of greatness with subtle cues and progression changes, marrying plot elements to each other with grace and bombast. Waltzes and other forms of dance stand in for sex in that peculiar and humourous way they do in Tolstoy novels.
Last week a fellow blogger posted his list of the top five worst films of the decade, on which he included Sophia Coppola’s “Marie
Antoinette,” a movie I also disliked. I reflected on Coppola’s film while watching the period drama of “The Young Victoria” unfold. Though I thought “Marie Antoinette” unsuccessful, I respect the courage Coppola had to attempt to make the French Queen’s story her own and to turn what has by now become a vastly overdone generic style into something different and unexpected.
What makes a period drama successful? For its fans, among whom I don’t particularly count myself, I believe it is accuracy of representation, lavish costume designs, a handle on atmosphere and the titillation of scandal. On my way out of the theatre I heard patrons discussing palace locales. All very well and good. “The Young Victoria’s” sets and costumes are on par with the best I’ve seen in a period production. Victoria’s personal battles with the tyrannic Kensington system of child-rearing and her self-aware impropriety make for a pretty compelling story. And I did not once feel taken out of mid-19th century Britain, though it would have been nice to have a better look at the “public” that the royals took to occasionally discussing on their slow walks around the Buckingham grounds.
Click here for a clip from “The Young Victoria.”
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Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.