We know Queen Victoria as the stern, round-faced widow who ruled Britain -- the woman who became Queen at the age of 18 and reigned for an impressive 63 years. Peeling that image away, French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee shows us a wholly different side of the Queen in The Young Victoria. Choosing to linger on Victoria's early years rife with isolation and manipulation, Vallee reveals the young woman who came to rise above her environment to become one of the most notable figures in the British monarchy. It's an angle that almost works beautifully, but ultimately falls victim to poor framing and the throes of dramatic romance.
Emily Blunt's Victoria rests at the center of a pulsing web of power struggles. Her mother (the Duchess of Kent, played by Miranda Richardson) is the puppet of her companion, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Together, they struggle to keep control over the young girl, and to keep her from King William IV (Jim Broadbent), who, in turn, publicly loathes the Duchess. The Duchess' brother, meanwhile -- Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) -- is determined for Victoria to marry the young Albert (Rupert Friend). To make it even more complicated, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) comes into play, charming his way to a position as Victoria's trusted advisor while the young Albert struggles to not only win Victoria's heart, but also stop Melbourne's influence.
It's a mess of personal agendas, but none affect Victoria as much as the Duchess and Conroy's Kensington System -- a preposterous set of rules controlling the Princess under the guise of keeping her safe. Under constant supervision, Victoria cannot enjoy even the simplest of freedoms -- walking up and down stairs without a hand-holding escort. It's an oppressive life for a young girl to stomach, but Blunt's Victoria faces it with strength and grace -- her uplifting charisma the perfect contrast to Richardson's stern, controlling eye and Strong's tense, eager demeanor.
Vallee refuses to let Victoria be the classically stodgy and dark figure, and allows Blunt's charisma to be Victoria's strength. Personality bubbles out of the young woman's oppression not in a flighty way, but in a strong, intelligent, and assured manner. Victoria lives a life wholly different from our own, yet it's easy to relate to because Blunt makes Victoria a woman with subtlety, and Vallee is a filmmaker skilled at capturing those slight, ever-important moments. He continues to focus on what many ignore -- the telling look in the eye, or the nervous, revealing breath.
It's these moments that drive the film, rather than the pace of the story. While Julian Fellowes adeptly took us through the mystery of Gosford Park, he seems unsure with The Young Victoria, maintaining a removal from the subject that is only filled by the skills of Vallee and his cast. The film focuses on a very small period of time, yet it doesn't dare to dig far beyond the surface to detail how her isolated life truly affected her, or how she dealt with being Queen at the age of 18. Instead, it breezes over these moments to focus on the upcoming romance.
At first, it works. Victoria started her reign a free, lone woman, choosing to become secure with her position before taking a husband. In that time, when Albert is nothing more than a pen-pal and confidant, the romance flows nicely. She is able to have love, or the option of love, without it being all-consuming and distracting.
But the film feeds into Hollywood's incessant desire to focus on romance and drama, and the casual and charming correspondences are followed by the marriage, the passion, and the grand displays of love. We're thrown from the story of how a girl becomes Queen to a new chapter of romance. Situated at the latter half of the film, there's no time to really dig deep into Victoria's twenty years with Albert and the initial years of her reign, so the film ends after a new beginning of sorts. Having stretched beyond the conclusion of her pre-reign youth, beyond even her marriage to Albert, there is no penultimate drama for the third act, so Fellowes must add dramatic liberties and Vallee must close the film abruptly.
Nevertheless, The Young Victoria manages to make something fresh in a well-established genre. Vallee has proven to be a filmmaker who can apply his skilled eye to any time period, adding his own modern vision and musical ties without compromising the integrity of the era. In C.R.A.Z.Y. it was using a Patsy Cline song to tell the story of a father and his sons. In The Young Victoria, he applies the same mentality by having Victoria and Albert bond over opera and personal expression, wonderfully making his subjects not strange and removed icons, but rather real people not completely different from ourselves.
Ultimately, however, I can't help but wonder how The Young Victoria would have played out under Vallee's pen. C.R.A.Z.Y. tied the first moments into the last -- each moment intermingling with the next and leading to the final, appropriate conclusion. It's a technique Victoria's young life would have benefited from.