REVIEW: The Young Victoria [2009]

“You are confusing stubbornness for strength”

When I had heard that the closing night film for the 2009 Toronto Film Festival was to be The Young Victoria, I admittedly scratched my head. Why would they choose some run-of-the-mill historical period drama when they could tap a new, exciting experiment instead, closing it in style? Well, I apologize for selling this film short because it is a beautiful piece of art, educating its audience about Queen Victoria at the same time as telling a story of youth, romance, power, and control. Being written by Julian Fellowes should have given me pause to think this film would be more than appearances showed, not to mention a who’s who cast of European actors—a veritable Harry Potter in that regard. Jean-Marc Vallée has brought all the tools at his disposal together and created something that does not become a prison to its genre.

Just as Victoria says in voiceover at the start about how even a palace can be a prison, well, period drama can be as well. How often do these elaborately recreated works become more artifice than substance, looking stunning yet containing nothing more? Vallée makes sure to not allow his vision to fall prey to that sometimes-unavoidable pitfall right from the start. One of the first images we see is a blurred field of color that soon focuses into a line of British sentries in full regalia. The clarity is sharply pointed on about three at a time, slowly going down the line as what once was visible soon fades back into fog. Utilized again later on with a row of wine glasses, the shallow depth of field itself plays a large role in the film’s construction. Ever since Orson Welles perfected the use of a completely clear field of vision with Citizen Kane most films have tried to replicate it, soon having the technique become the norm. Even recent works like Speed Racer used a complete sense of sight to render it similar to the cells of a cartoon, but there is something to be said about blurring. Not only is it a breath of fresh air here—adding depth and visual excitement—but also the precise focal points that result push the viewer’s eye directly to what matters. Here is a director taking full control of his vision, showing us exactly what he wants us to see.

The technique itself wouldn’t be as successful as it is without some wonderful acting to hold our interest and deem the characters worthy of such scrutinized attention. Across the board we are given fully realized interpretations of these historical figures. Much can be said, and will, for Emily Blunt’s portrayal of the young Queen herself, but the surrounding roles all carry their own weight in both shaping who she was to become and bolstering her power with much needed help. Mark Strong is Sir John Conroy, the controller of Victoria’s mother’s estate, the Duchess of Kent, played by Miranda Richardson. Both these actors have the expressiveness and zeal to be villainous and cruel, but appearances here are not so simple. Yes they want power, yes they oftentimes put themselves ahead of the heir to the kingdom, but when all is said and done, they do somehow have her interests in mind, no matter how warped their thought process. Beneath the scowls and temper of Strong lies a compassion and belief that he could have helped and served if only he kept his emotions in check earlier on. The entire film is composed of people with a conflict of duality; they are all surrounding a girl with the potential of greatness, wanting her to succeed while also taking a little something for their own.

And here is the true strength of the story—it is not all about Victoria herself. Being the only child of royal blood from the three brothers in power, she is the inheritor of England when King William passes on. So the fight is on for finding her a politically positioned husband, for being the bird on her shoulder steering her every move, and unfortunately also preying upon her inexperience to take some of her power away. There is current Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, attempting to keep his party in power despite the public consensus that he will lost Parliament in the near future and Victoria’s uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, looking to beat everyone else to the punch by placing his nephew in direct view as a suitor to secure the future of his own country. Ulterior motives run rampant and mistakes are made, causing the public to lose faith in their new queen early on. However, when the stakes become crucially important and the good of the nation is made top priority, all those who have positioned themselves in the sovereign’s inner circle find a way to be practical and honest, allowing her to grow as a leader rather than be just a puppet on display.

So, no matter what these roles begin as, some even causing the audience to harbor some hatred for their duplicitous ways, their humanity does win out causing a recalculation of their true worth. Paul Bettany is great as Melbourne, playing both sides at all times, making it difficult to know if Victoria is simply a pawn in his own chess game; Jim Broadbent is a riot as the drunkard, yet honest to a fault, King William; and Thomas Kretschmann is his usual strong-willed, military-minded self, lending a power to King Leopold that could be seen as hubris awaiting a giant fall. But through all the politics and historical tidbits—I’ll admit to learning a lot during the course of the movie that I had not known about Queen Victoria’s reign—it is the young lovers’ romance between Blunt and Rupert Friend’s Prince Albert that shines above all. Here are two innocent idealists surrounded by power hungry men, only wanting to see the poor and disenfranchised helped, wanting to cause real change and not just serve the rich. Amidst all the greed and selfishness, these two have grown to be of sound heart and soul, finding each other through political maneuvers, but staying together by common ideals and hopes. They are the shining light for England’s future and the focal point of a very well conceived and told film.

The Young Victoria 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.


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