The Young Victoria – a movie review

It should have been great. I mean, while she may not have much cachet, Victoria is as interesting in her own right as Elizabeth. She became queen of England at 18! There were assassination attempts! She was the first monarch to live in Buckingham Palace! She married a man she loved amidst a murky sea of political intrigue! The Young Victoria is a sumptuous historical, well acted, and even enjoyable. Yet somehow, with all this to work with, and a reviewer with a particular fondness for British material, it comes across as something between a PG-rated Elizabeth and some generic Jane Austen romance.

The set-up has potential. King William is in ill-health. His niece, Victoria, is the only living progeny of William and his two brothers. However, Victoria’s mother is very much under the influence of Sir John Conroy, who has been trying to get Victoria to agree to a regency for years. William despises Conroy and wants to somehow hang on until she attains her legal majority at 18. He does so, dying one month after her birthday, leaving a very sheltered, very naïve girl, a girl who has always had to hold someone’s hand while walking down stairs of any kind for fear of an accident happening to the only heir to the throne, as queen of England, the most powerful individual in the world.

Victoria is played by Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, The Jane Austen Book Club) as an inexperienced, often clueless, but not silly girl with very little idea of what is expected of her. What she does have is a deeply-rooted sense of responsibility to her subjects. While Blunt ably plays her, the actress is 26-years-old. I simply didn’t buy that Victoria was 18, the age she is in most of the movie.  Further, there is absolutely no hint of the prudishness with which Victoria later became synonymous.

Much is made in the movie of the tutelage of Victoria by prime minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), to the detriment of his rival and eventual successor, William Peel. Victoria likes Melbourne (called The Seducer by the public) and relies on his judgment. Bettany (Master and Commander, A Beautiful Mind) plays him as someone fond of Victoria but very much angling for his own agenda.

Many years ago I read a biography of Victoria and Albert in which the author took the view that while she was very much in love with Albert, he cared about her and married her for political expediency. However, the movie takes the view that this is a love story, and their relationship is definitely the main focus of the plot.

Played by the beautifully named Rupert Friend (who played Wickham in the Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice),  Victoria’s cousin Albert is very much under the thumb of his ambitious uncle Leopold, King of Belgium (also Victoria’s uncle), who wanted their marriage as a way of having more influence over British politics. He has Albert study Victoria’s likes and dislikes to seem as appealing to her as possible.

It is inevitable that she would love him. Here is a formerly sheltered girl, estranged from her mother, with no siblings nor friends, nor even close relations, and everyone wants something from her. Everyone has ulterior motives. And here is a 20-year-old young man who is very nice to her and is completely on her side. What is more in question for me are his feelings. It simply seems too convenient, too expedient, to me that Albert falls in love with her in spite of himself. This aspect of the movie lacks authenticity for me, no matter how sweet it seems.

Young Victoria was written by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winner for the screenplay of the much more compelling Gosford Park. Fellowes’ wife is a lady in waiting for Princess Michael of Kent, so he should know something about the subject of royalty. (I’m afraid that for me he will always be the slightly silly Lord Kilwillie of Monarch of the Glen.) He is also the author of the drawing room farcical novel Snobs. Unfortunately here, he focuses on the Victoria/Albert relationship to the detriment of all other plots, from disquiet among the politicians, to the anger of the English people, and even that of fellow royals. Largely unknown director Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y.) makes Victoria’s world seem small, almost claustrophobic, despite the opulence and pageantry, and this was interesting, but it limited the scope of a movie with an already limited scope.

by Heather Craig

Young Victoria movie poster

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