Marlies Janssens reviews Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2009 period piece “The Young Victoria”, a well-made but somewhat generic romantic drama that, while earning its acclaim for acting and costumes is narratively “rather tiring at moments”.
The Young Victoria is a British-American period drama film by the Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, and written by Julian Fellowes, which can be categorized along with other historical biopics such as Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008) or Shekhar Khapur’s Elizabeth (1998), but in this one the focus is not primarily on Queen Victoria’s reign, but on her private life and her romantic encounters with Prince Albert.
This 2009 film by Jean-Marc Vallée, who is also known for his award winning feature films Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014) tells the romantic story of Victoria (Emily Blunt), the Princess of Kent, who is heiress to the throne after her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) dies in 1837.
As we watch, we witness Victoria grow up, leading the life of a rebellious princess who tries to push herself off from her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her adviser Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). He secretly hopes King William will die when Victoria is still a minor, which would make her mother Regent and therefore would cause him to exert more power behind the throne. In the meantime, her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) seeks to secure an alliance between Britain and Belgium. Therefore, he sends his nephew Prince Albert of Saxen-Coburg Gotha (Rupert Friend) to seduce Victoria.
When Victoria becomes Queen at the age of 18 –no regency took place – she increasingly distances herself from her mother and Sir Conroy after which the Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne becomes her adviser (after years of faithful duty to the deceased King). This part is performed by the ever-charming Paul Bettany. As the love between Victoria and Albert seems to grow, the initially powerless Albert gets the chance to exert more influence on Victoria’s decisions, which obviously clash with those of Lord Melbourne.
After a fierce argument between Victoria and Albert over parliamentary politics, Victoria is fired upon by an assassin while the couple is riding in a carriage together. Albert catches the bullet for her. This happens near the end of the film, and raises the logical question: will he survive the attack? Well, yes, of course, because that is what history teaches us, and The Young Victoria sticks to the facts and leaves no place for fictionalized story plots. Whoever had proper history classes in secondary grade should already realise by then that the film merely portrays the first turbulent years of Queen Victoria’s reign and her enduring romance with Albert. The film is yet another romantic story, like a dime a dozen unfortunately, despite the fact that it is based on true historical events. Consequently, the narrative misses some dramatic depth and tension.
Vallée uses a more or less static camera and one should watch really closely to witness any special effects – of course they do not make sense given the time period, but they do add to The Young Victoria’s cinematic value when he wants to bring attention to important relevant turning points in the narrative, such as when Prince Albert gets shot in slow motion. This is probably to stress them as key moments and heighten the tension, but it ultimately seems corny.
Vallée introduces and closes the film with title cards with historical facts. This helps us understand the historical framework around the story along with the extra-diegetic narrator, who is Victoria herself. Telling the story from her viewpoint – which is nonetheless the objective truth – makes the viewer sympathize with the young Queen-to-be.
The Young Victoria stars an impressive cast and also gives the opportunity for fresh talent to rise, like the Dutch Michiel Huisman as Ernest of Saxen-Coburg Gotha, who now takes a leading part in The Age of Adaline (2015). The leading part of Queen Victoria is performed by the talented British actress Emily Blunt, who seems to have been born with a natural and modest air that is most appropriate when taking the role of a Queen. Therefore, she was nominated for multiple awards as Best Actress, including at the Golden Globes in 2010 and the British Independent Film Awards in 2009. A remarkable fact is that The Young Victoria won an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award in 2010 among others for its Costume Design by Sandy Powell. One might conclude that Vallée’s film was more praised for its mise en scène and props, than for its narrative.
Historical consultant Alastair Bruce, 5th Baron Aberdare was hired to make the film as historically accurate as possible, so what the audience witnesses on the screen, is supposed to be exactly what the history of the British monarchy implies. Nonetheless, The Young Victoria has been criticised for historical inaccuracies, such as the fact that Prince Albert and Ernest talk German to one another, while the royal family in Belgium used to talk French or Dutch. Despite the incredible cast and the film’s success in the running for many awards, The Young Victoria and its depiction of the romance between the two young lovers might be a bit too corny and rather tiring at moments for those who prefer a film to have a little action.