Costumes, Art Direction Trump Performances in The Young Victoria
- Friday, December 18, 2009
DVD Release Date: April 20, 2010
Theatrical Release Date: December 18, 2009 (limited)
Rating: PG (for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence, and brief incidental language and smoking)
Run Time: 100 min.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Actors: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Marc Strong, Jesper Christensen, Thomas Kretschmann
The holiday movie season brings its share of blockbusters along with high-toned Oscar bait. This weekend, many moviegoers will flock to the futuristic wizardry of Avatar, but those who are more interested in the drama of an earlier age might want to check out The Young Victoria, a period piece. It's not the best film currently playing, or even a particularly good one, because the story has a split personality. But some beautiful interior shots and costuming compensate somewhat for the film's identity crisis.
In a performance that's just been nominated for a Golden Globe, Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada and this year's underrated Sunshine Cleaning) stars as Victoria, who ascends to the throne of England despite the machinations of her mother (Miranda Richardson)—the Duchess of Kent—and Sir John Conroy (Marc Strong).
"Even a palace can be a prison," we hear Victoria say during the film's opening moments, which recount the jockeying over who would rule England upon the death of Victoria's uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent). Although the king's heir, Victoria is just a child—"an ignorant baby" in the words of one of her detractors, and a pawn in a power struggle for the throne. She lives in opulence, but never has a moment to herself. Because of "the Kensington System" of protection, she can't sleep without someone nearby or walk down the stairs without holding an adult's hand. Yet she knows that she will be queen—sooner than some officials are comfortable with because of the king's illness. Her mother and Sir John attempt to force her to sign a regency order giving power to them until she becomes of age, but she refuses, praying for the strength to "meet her destiny." (Viewers would be better served to bone up a bit on Victoria's family tree in order not to become lost in the melee of relational connections.)
The first half of the film focuses on these power struggles. Blunt is fine as Victoria, but the film, while stately and regal, is rather lifeless, sparking to life only when supporting characters such as Broadbent, Strong and Richardson bellow and connive. Working with his own, separate political agenda is Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who is the current Prime Minister.
Running parallel to the political intrigue storyline is who will wed Victoria. Machinations of a romantic nature occur as another of Victoria's uncles, King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) of Belgium schemes to marry her off to one of his nephews, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). The Young Victoria then becomes a different movie, turning into an epic historical romance between Victoria and Prince Albert.
At first, Albert is merely Leopold's pawn in the marriage game, but he soon grows to love Victoria for herself. "I know what it's like to live inside your head," he tells her. They bond. They dance. They share a passion for "the working man's improvement."
And when the costumes and interior shots look so good, who really cares about a Constitutional crisis in Parliament after Victoria takes the throne at the tender age of 18? But The Young Victoria can't quite escape the historical intrigue as the young queen makes a series of blunders that turns her subjects against her. An armed man is detained outside Buckingham Palace, and a window is shot out, but the film then spends a long stretch on Victoria's marriage to Albert, their wedding night, the morning after ("Now I am quite married," Victoria tells Albert as she caresses him in the morning sunlight).
Because the film tells the back story of her ascension to the throne and her early years as a monarch, along with the love story of Victoria and Albert, the film has an identity crisis. It can't seem to make up its mind exactly what it wants to be. The film ends with additional intrigue (money has been stolen), another chapter to the love story (Victoria is pregnant; husband and wife have a quarrel); danger for Victoria as queen (an assassination attempt); and some more kissing and scenes of the couple in bed (clothed).
The movie strives to be to Victoria what The Duchess was to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, a film that did a much better job of fleshing out an extraordinary young woman. Those who want an exciting historical drama will enjoy half of The Young Victoria, as will those who want a historical romance.
Those who want a less schizophrenic film will find themselves focusing on the lovely costumes and art direction, which turn out to be the best parts of this big-screen history lesson.
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