Somewhere out there, wherever such souls reside, Anne of Great Britain must be wondering what she had to do during her reign to merit her own prettily mounted biopic. She may be the last relatively untapped figure in British heritage cinema’s well-worn library of queenly narratives, but she has once more been passed over for the privilege of fronting the latest middlebrow, true-life royal drama, fast becoming an annual fixture on the UK film calendar.
Instead, the powers that be (noting with reluctance that the lives of both Elizabeths have been sufficiently plundered of late) have returned to that old stalwart, Queen Victoria, for inspiration. Marginal inspiration, at that –- that “young” inserted in the title is intended as the film’s creative and commercial trump card, promising a sprightlier, sexier take on the figure more frequently depicted in her latter years as a stern, cabbage-faced matron.
Indeed, from the sly casting of impish Emily Blunt in the title role to the Easter-egg hues of Sandy Powell’s typically immaculate frocks, Jean-Marc Vallee’s film works overtime to convince us that the 18-year-old Victoria could be very amused indeed: as Blunt barely suppresses laughter at a stiff royal function, or skips down a corridor after being informed of her impending coronation, she effectively severs any connection or comparison with Judi Dench’s Oscar-nominated interpretation of the role in “Mrs Brown.”
Meanwhile, in depicting its subject as a modern woman suffocated by her surroundings and dated gender trappings, complete with adorable lapdog and an accent that is decidedly more Sloane Square circa 2009 than House of Hanover circa 1837, the film pulls a similar trick of characterization to last year’s “The Duchess.” Working, however, in an even softer register than that already lightweight film, “The Young Victoria” plays down court intrigue in favor of dewy-eyed first love; if “Elizabeth’s” populist coup was restyling royal history as political thriller, this lands squarely in rom-com territory, with Rupert Friend’s Prince Albert the dreamy yet ever-deferred suitor.
All of which would work a treat if there was enough incident and complication in Julian Fellowes’s unusually trim script to sustain our interest in its heroine, or to fabricate any kind of tension around her burgeoning love affair. (Yes, we know how it all ends, but that is one of the few things that historical biopics and romantic comedies have in common.)
However, after an engagingly heightened opening reel in which Victoria’s ascension to the throne is told in broad fairytale strokes (and it’s here where the wide-eyed individualized perspective Vallee conjured in his infinitely more characterful “C.R.A.Z.Y.” shows itself once more), it soon becomes abundantly clear why this half of the woman’s life hasn’t been studied as often on film: it is, to put it gently, not very interesting.
The film’s awkward structure posits Victoria as the pivotal figure in two power triangles, neither one having any discernible bearing on the other, and both insufficiently powered to drive the narrative alone. Indeed, the first such entanglement is essentially resolved in the first act, as the princess ascends to the throne, thereby escaping the oppressive rule of her mother (Miranda Richardson, painlessly collecting a paycheck) and cruel, domineering adviser Conroy (Mark Strong).
Victoria, however, inevitably remains a passive figure in this entire process (one can’t decide to be Queen, after all), while her elders are powerless to oppose her before and after the fact, which renders Strong’s sneering villainy particularly impotent.
The bulk of the film, then, is left to focus on Victoria and Albert’s largely long-distance, but otherwise obstacle-free courtship, portrayed in the film’s middle section in stultifying epistolary terms –- at one point, I counted three letters read back-to-back in voice over, over inert, honey-toned montages of rolling green plains and meringue-like skirts swishing down vast hallways.
Fellowes juxtaposes these non-developments with the burgeoning friendship between Victoria and Paul Bettany’s wry Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne –- the only remotely ambiguous figure in the film. Melbourne provides the film’s sole source of conflict, both political and romantic: his essentially conservative politics hold considerable sway over the naive young Queen, bringing out her of public favor, while the quasi-romantic confidante status he enjoys with her is resented by Albert.
These threats, however, remain just that: soon enough, Victoria masters her court and marries her Prince, and like “the other guy” in many a romantic comedy, Bettany joins Richardson and Strong on the discarded-antagonist bench.
And on it goes, every possible narrative high swiftly defused before it has a chance to develop: the lovers argue over power but resolve their differences; Melbourne briefly looks set to lose the election but then doesn’t; a feeble assassination attempt comes to nothing.
Fellowes can’t be blamed for the factual blandness of it all, but he certainly can be for the tin-eared dialogue peppered throughout, which alternates from clunky, unmasked exposition (in the “That’s Lord Melbourne” vein) to glib banality (another extended chess metaphor). We are a long way from the crisp wit and structural density of “Gosford Park” here.
Given so little to chew on, it says something for Emily Blunt’s considerable screen charisma that she makes Victoria appear a less reactive character than has been written. As in “The Devil Wears Prada,” she frequently relies on her a kind of put-upon hauteur to extract humor from unprepossessing material, though there is perhaps too much of that playfulness at the expense of the precocious sensuality she displayed so brilliantly in “My Summer of Love”; this Young Victoria remains a notably sexless figure.
The real revelation, rather, is Rupert Friend, who is given even less to work with than his co-star and emerges with leading man gravitas that I think few suspected he had. Delicately negotiating Albert’s gangly shyness without descending into hapless-fop cliché, Friend quietly keeps the love story afloat by downplaying the character’s heroism in favor of his boyishness, aided visually by the wispiest of mustaches.
Whether nervously pausing as he deliberates over his next sentence, holding his breath as he concentrates on his dance steps, or goofily running down a corridor in expectation of a letter, he never loses sight of the fact that this Prince is still very much a besotted kid. Radiating warmth and humility, Friend’s superb performance is the only element that moves with Victoria in this otherwise petrified, disinterested film — and by far the youngest thing about it.