Crown royal 

Victoria unveils the making of a queen

An older acquaintance of mine, relating an anecdote about an uncle of his, remarked on how extraordinary it was that a man who served in the tsar's army could, in the same lifetime, invite a young Bob Dylan home to stay with his family. Some century!

In another arresting example of the difference a couple of generations can make, consider the descendants of Britain's Queen Victoria. Her nine children with Prince Albert supplied royalty for half the countries in Europe in the late 19th century. The hemophilia that plagued the Russian line with particular cruelty (enter, here, the corrupt monk Rasputin and his mystical blood-stanching powers) seems to have originated with her, as well. Her grandchildren—including Russia's Nicholas II, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and Britain's George V, all affectionate but bickersome cousins—sent the subjects of their respective nation-states to kill each other by the millions during World War I.

In hindsight, one is tempted to think of Queen Victoria's fruitful uterus as a kind of Pandora's box of 20th century woes. To try and imagine what might have been if "the grandmother of Europe" had died before her childbearing prime—cut down in 1840, say, during the first of many assassination attempts that troubled her 63-year reign—is one of the pointless academic diversions to which the study of history lends itself so nicely.

I like historical dramas generally, but the closer they are to the 20th century the more intriguing I find them. Elizabeth, for example, supplies enough historical context to place the viewer convincingly in the world of the movie, if not exactly bear him through 400 years of subsequent history to a better understanding of present-day Britain. In The Young Victoria, everything we associate with the Victorian period is in its early days: the social values, the empire, the sense of inevitable progress and, of course, the historical players whose actions and decisions would, in fact, directly and indirectly steer the course of 20th century events.

Clearly the role of young Queen Victoria would be a plum for any actress, but a daunting one. Perhaps it's a concession to relaxed modern sensibilities that Emily Blunt delivers her opening narration in a voice not much elevated from her normal nice, standard British accent. It's hard to believe a young Queen Victoria would sound more like a Chelsea shopgirl than the modern Queen Elizabeth, who speaks with a ripe patrician crispness that renders "crown" as "crine," but perhaps the writers felt this bit of verisimilitude would alienate our affection for the young Victoria, whom the movie is everywhere at pains to depict as a nice young British girl born into extraordinary circumstances. "Basically be yourself, only 50 percent less demonstrative," the director might well have told Blunt.

click to enlarge Even Queen Victoria pays tribute to Michael Jackson.
  • Even Queen Victoria pays tribute to Michael Jackson.

We see a bit of the downside to being the future queen of the United Kingdom and first empress of India: For starters, one never has a second to one's royal self for all the handlers and schemers hovering around. Victoria's insular childhood was made even more confined and claustrophobic by the so-called Kensington System devised by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her advisor (and possible lover), Sir John Conroy, to prevent any exposure to unvetted persons or ideas that might weaken the Duchess and Conroy's hold over her. At 18, she is still required to hold someone else's hand while descending stairs.

Blunt brings plenty of pluck to the part, although The Young Victoria isn't modern enough it its sensibilities to exploit, for example, her feminism (unlike, say, Kate Winslet's incipient girl-power agenda in Titanic, a movie to which The Young Victoria bears a certain similarity in its themes of overprotected adolescence and innocence on the eve of weighty subsequent history). Rather, Blunt's young Victoria is politically adept in her dealings with the men who surround her, including the overbearing Conroy (Mark Strong), the silver-tongued Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and, not least, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

The Young Victoria is solid and enjoyable, though some might complain that it's also a bit bloodless. Part of that is down to the straitened nature of royal courtship: Victoria and Prince Albert compose politely longing letters to each other—letters always opened and read first by the recipient's advisors—and are otherwise left to conduct a romance as best they can in full round-the-clock view of their watchful guardians and attendant schemers. The propriety demanded of the young couple makes for some interesting tension—at times, Victoria's sexual awakening seems concentrated in Blunt's glowing collarbones—but we never really feel the passion roiling over. There's nothing here to satisfy the mildest carnal hankering. If anything, watching Prince Albert dither and fumble through the courtship will remind male viewers of awkward first dates as teenagers.

No complaints with Blunt, as mentioned, but it's the surrounding cast that really justifies her presence here. She's strong enough, playing innocence and inexperience, to hold the center while the rest of the cast—especially Bettany as Lord Melbourne and Jim Broadbent as a cantankerous King William—steals the show around her. It makes for a fun diversion, a light period immersion, but not a royal triumph.

The Young Victoria continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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