Friday, 25 September 2009

Young Victoria: we are amused

Elizabeth seems to have provided a rich seam for actresses and now it is the turn of Victoria. With a reign of 63 years, Queen Victoria, as the final credits point out, is the longest serving British monarch. To date. She came to the throne as a young girl of 18 with unscrupulous relatives and uncertainty over her suitability to rule the country, and she presided over an era of unprecedented social reform and scientific discovery.

Dame Judi Dench has got the role of old Victoria sewn up, and now Emily Blunt assumes the eponymous mantle of the Young Victoria with aplomb. It is wonderful to see the producers (the unlikely combination of Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson) refusing to bow to Hollywood pressure and casting an English actress in the title role. Much of the explanatory narrative is described in her voice-over and what a beautiful voice that young woman has.

Victoria’s childhood was far from ‘normal’. She couldn’t walk down the stairs without holding someone’s hand, someone had to taste her food, and her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), slept in the same bedroom. Later someone does break into the palace and someone does try to shoot Victoria which makes us question how much of this is protection and how much suffocation?

Miranda Richardson has, of course, played Elizabeth I herself, and when Victoria has a small tantrum about her royal rights being questioned, you almost expect Richardson to demand, ‘Who’s queen?’ She is excellent playing the part of a mother who has made the wrong decision, and struggling to find a niche as a woman in a male-dominated world.

Her advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong with seriuos sideburns), wants her to force her daughter to sign a regency agreement so that they can rule in her stead, and attempts to remove her from the influence of her grandfather, the irascible King William IV, played brilliantly by Jim Broadbent.

There has been some comment about the lack of exploration of the sexual relationship between Conroy and the Duchess of Kent, but in a time when piano legs were covered with lace to prevent them exciting the gentlemen, this would have been out of place – thankfully not all historical romances have to be the tedious bonk-fest that is expected in the wake of The Tudors.

The history is simplified throughout and there is even a family tree at the beginning for those who aren’t sure of their kings and queens and line of succession. Of course some things are wrong – Albert wasn’t shot in the defence of Victoria; she would never have referred to her royal personage in the singular; there was no such thing as a regency agreement for her to sign; teenage petulance is a relatively modern construct – but it’s called dramatic licence.

This is not a documentary; it’s a drama. If it has whetted your appetite, there are a myriad of (very good) history books you can read about the period. This is entertainment not fact. Scriptwriter Julian Fellowes (who won the best original screenplay Oscar in 2002 for Gosford Park), clearly has a political agenda of his own and chooses favourites among the contemporary politicians.

Victoria must learn whom she can trust among those battling for the power of influence, besides her mother and Conroy. Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) is seductively persuasive but devious and uninterested in helping the common folk; Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) is stiff and buttoned-up but with a need to do good; and the Duke of Wellington (Julian Glover) is simply blustery and belligerent with a drinker’s nose.

Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter: wonderful in her relatively small role and showing how fabulous acting can be) is the charming, cool, wise confidant that Victoria needs. Victoria learns (as Prince Charles found to his cost) that royalty and politics don’t mix. When she tries to make a stand, the people ‘punish’ her rebelling outside her gates.

She is mocked by the media over The Bedchamber Crisis of 1839. Cartoons and commentary erupted over her refusal to change her ladies-in-waiting at Peel’s insistence. He claimed he was unable to create a government without Her Majesty’s support and resigned. The incident is used to illustrate the essential dichotomy of Victoria. She wants to laugh and giggle but also wield power; she demands independence while she yearns for support; she’s a queen but she’s also a woman and she plays the dual role with a smile for which men would willingly conquer worlds.

And then there is Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). This is unashamedly a love story – which is fairly unrealistic but entirely forgivable, apart from perhaps the breathless song by Sinead O’Connor which seems a little odd – since when was she a loyalist? Albert proves himself as Victoria’s friend, lover, supporter and number one fan. He teaches her how to play the game better than those who wish to use her as a pawn in their own machinations, and the clichéd chess scene is unnecessarily laboured. But he has charm, fortitude and a twinkle in his eye. All letters addressed to him (including the blossoming courtship) are read first by a censor and he asks with languid resignation, “Will there ever come a time when I get to read them first?”

When Victoria has his desk brought in beside hers for them to address correspondence together, and when they walk formally into a room, or dance all night at a ball, it is clear that they will present a united front. Her love is evident in the girlish glee of jumping down steps or skipping down corridors, reflecting her childhood hopscotch on the tiles in the opening scenes before the pressures of monarchy descended on her shoulders. Albert has the ability to bring a smile and even a laugh to light up her face – a far cry from the perpetually mourning widow who was so famously not amused.

There will doubtless be Oscar nominations for this film – for the acting, production, screen-writing, costumes, and directing (Jean-Marc Vallée). It is beautifully shot and captures the pomp and the ritual but also the solemnity of the monarchy. The extravagantly sumptuous pageants, parades and palaces (Victoria was the first monarch in Buckingham Palace) are both sweeping and fleeting.

The Coronation, the dances, the dinners, and the grand tour only last for a few seconds. The enormity of the scene is established but the curtains are soon drawn. Like a stolen peek into first class on a plane, there is a tantalising glimpse of this incredible world of slammed doors and locked gates.

This is a privileged position and one to which very few gain admission, yet what goes on behind closed doors must remain there – we, the public, must be satisfied with the bountiful appearances on the balcony. It is all the more amazing then, that Princess Beatrice plays one of the ladies-in-waiting, in a brief scene – the dramatic connotations spiral off into infinity.

There is a lot more to the story and Fellowes has been necessarily selective with incidents. The closing credits elucidate events that are yet to come. Perhaps there will be another film to fill in the gaps between the young and old Victoria. I wonder who will play the middle-aged battleaxe with a secretly warm heart.


Anonymous said...

I saw this movie on the plane Kate and I was a wee bit disappointed. However, maybe seeing it on the big screen would be better. I love Emily Blunt and her cut glass accent and beautiful looks. But I felt the movie lacked a bit of substance. Was it just me? Or was it the small screen on the plane? x
Pipi x

Kate Blackhurst said...

Hi Pipi,

Yes, I blame the small screen. For me the interest in the film came from the emotion behind the veneer, but it's hard to cram all that pomp and majesty into 7x5" that keeps slamming into your knees! Kate x