Friday, December 18, 2009

Movie Review: The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria ***
Directed By:
Jean-Marc Vallee.
Written By: Julian Fellowes.
Starring: Emily Blunt (Young Victoria), Rupert Friend (Prince Albert), Paul Bettany (Lord Melbourne), Miranda Richardson (Duchess of Kent), Jim Broadbent (King William), Thomas Kretschmann (King Leopold of Belgium), Mark Strong (Sir John Conroy), Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide), Michael Maloney (Sir Robert Peel), Genevieve O'Reilly (Lady Flora Hastings).

So many costume dramas ignore political concerns, and simply like to dwell on the art direction and costume design, as if what the characters are wearing, and the gorgeousness of the décor is more important than what the characters are thinking and feeling. The Young Victoria is different. It follows Queen Victoria and her raise from a sheltered teenager, through her coronation, her marriage and the birth of her first child. It is a movie that focuses on the political implications of her every decision.

Emily Blunt plays Victoria, and finds the right notes to play a naïve and playful teenager, tired of being treated like a prisoner by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her servant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Her Uncle William (Jim Broadbent), is the King, and because she is the only child of her royal generation, she will become Queen when he dies. Conroy is hoping that Victoria is going to appoint her mother regent, effectively giving her power until she becomes older, and can perform her duties, and as such he can pull the strings from behind the scenes. But Victoria hates him, and has no plans to turn over her power, either to him or anyone else.

The King of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) is the related of the Duchess, and wants to have control over England himself. He has planned to put his nephew, Albert (Rupert Friend), into Victoria’s heart, so he can influence her politics himself. In addition, the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), uses Victoria for his own purposes. He knows that she is politically sympathetic to his cause. She uses this, and his natural charm, to integrate himself into her life. He becomes her closest adviser once she becomes Queen, and manipulates her to his own purposes. No matter how unpopular her decisions are, or her relationship with him is, she refuses to listen to anyone else. Even when she marries Albert, she keeps him at a distance politically.

I’m sure that many people will find The Young Victoria rather dull. Costume dramas have traditionally been more romantic in nature, and although the movie does tell the love story between Victoria and Albert (and Blunt and Friend are excellent at showing this love on screen), it is much more concerned with the political maneuverings of the people in question. There are multiple references to chess pieces in this movie, and director Jean Marc Vallee and writer Julien Fellowes treat their characters much the same way.

Speaking of Vallee, this is a curious choice for him. His first film was the great Quebecois film C.R.A.Z.Y. a movie about gay teenager in 1970s Quebec and his trouble growing up. Why he decided to go from that to a story of the British monarchy is interesting. He does do a fine job with things like the costume design and art direction, and he keeps the movie going along at a leisurely, but assured pace. But unlike C.R.A.Z.Y. he doesn’t really internalize the drama of the characters. He keeps his distance, and as such we remain at a distance from them as well.

Yet the performance keep us interested. Not just Blunt and Friend, both excellent, but Paul Bettany who is charming and devious, without becoming scummy. He really is a good guy, even if he uses Victoria for his own game. Jim Broadbent gives a brief, yet boisterous performance, as King William, drunkenly yelling at his sister in law, while doting on his beloved niece. Mark Strong adds yet another bad guy role to his resume as Sir John Conroy, so cold and calculating, and he can not believe that he has lost his chess game, and wasted his life.

The Young Victoria is well made and entertaining, without ever becoming quite engrossing. I admired the film, and its focus on politics, much more than I was swept away with it. It is a fine film, but could have been better.

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