The Young Victoria
It's a testament to the reserved and unobtrusive sense of the direction from helmer Jean-Marc Vallee that no reactionary lips were set a quivering by the realization that this intimate portrait of the eponymous monarch comes not from a Brit, but instead courtesy of (gasp) a French-Canadian. In fact, as evidenced by his poking a little fun at the overblown opulence of the coronation ceremony Vallee understands all too well that the monarchy of that time, tied as it was to Europe's precarious political situation and various power struggles, was one gigantic circus act that needed little further embellishment from him. Before the pre-teen princess, set to inherit her uncles' throne, has finished hop-scotching across a manner foyer we've already been to Belgium, Germany, and back to England to meet the various aristocracy desperately maneuvering to make a grab for the levers of power.
Chief amongst them is Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), advisor to Victoria's mother, The Duchess of Kent (an impressive Miranda Richardson), hoping to rule as regent in her stead. Scheming and purposeful, Conroy is the closest the film musters to an out-and-out antagonist, but his threat is never fully realized as the second Victoria comes of age he his banished from court and spends the rest of the story scuttling about the fringes in frustration. Such is the nature of the rigidly structured political system that the primary conflict is handled so much by proxy, with various players plotting away quietly and avoiding anything approaching a traditional confrontation.
While Victoria is highly adept at pushing people's buttons, and not quite the naive cupcake the political elite take her for, she is ultimately a headstrong young girl who lacks the experience to effectively govern. Impulsive, and as eager to adopt the advice of those she likes as ignore those she does not, Victoria falls under the influence of the charming but calculating Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). As the self-serving Melbourne, Paul Bettany cuts a magnificent figure; humble when he has to be, cruel when he wants to be, it's a performance that excites you again about an actor who has fallen somewhat down the pecking order of late.
But behind every great woman is a man (alright maybe not, but in this case it was true). Having split the country politically through her steadfast allegiance to Melbourne against popular opinion Victoria's crown and soul is rescued by Albert (Rupert Friend), a Saxon Dukem of German ancestry and the Crown Prince of Belgium. Having made enquires early in the story if he may write to Victoria, which in those days was akin to going steady, Albert encourages her to discover her own voice and to "Learn to play the game until you play it better than they do." Schooled in the ways of reform, Albert reigned in the bullish Victoria's unchecked emotion and together they ushered in a new era of prosperity for Britain at the twilight of its empire.
Despite what the title might suggest, this is less a bio picture about one woman and more a character study of a dysfunctional, inbred, extended family that spans an entire continent, and in that sense it is never less than completely accessible. It's also about power and what people will ultimately sacrifice in pursuit of it. As Victoria and Albert look to the future with optimism Vallee is careful to remind us of those who have failed. As a disgraced and possibly bankrupt Lord Conroy remarks to the Duschess "What have I done with my life?" to which she replies "You serve me well," to which he in turn replies "And what is that?"
If there is a criticism its that Vallee is in the end so concerned with detailing the absurd depths of the artifice and intrigue of high-society, and what exactly it takes to first come to power and second to hold onto it, that there isn't any time to see what ultimately comes of it all. Unlike many monarchs Victoria and Albert's legacy was born out of their deeds as heralds of a renewed focus of industrialization and cultural expansion. After what appears to be an age of set-up and positioning, it seems as though the story departs right as we're getting to the good bit.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Runtime: 100 Minutes
Distributor: Momentum Pictures