SHE WAS SOMETIMES AMUSED
Most of us have a mental image of Queen Victoria (if we have one at all) as a sour, frumpy old harridan in a black dress saying, “We are not amused.” Like all stereotypes that image contains some truth; but when she was a teenager, Victoria was plump and rosy and rather fetching.
Not that she got much fun out of life at that point. The king, William IV, was childless and everyone knew Victoria was next up, so her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent, along with Sir John Conroy, the Duchess's snarling boyfriend, devised the devilish “Kensington System,” a set of stifling rules designed to keep the young princess on a short leash. She was never allowed to play with other children, and at age 18 wasn't allowed to go up or down stairs without holding someone's hand.
All this history is handsomely brought to the screen in “The Young Victoria,” the kind of costume drama that we have come to associate with Masterpiece Theatre and the snootier British theatrical releases. But there's a certain type of audience member, and I confess to being one, who will sit for hours happily hypnotized by handsome people in long gowns and tailcoats strolling through formal gardens outside picturesque palaces. If you're one of this subgroup, you should send your footman on down to your local multiplex or rental facility.
What you'll see is an hour-and-three-quarter feast of ruling-class eye candy, filmed at a stately pace with absolutely no jittery cuts or hand-held camera work; but the carryings-on of the ruling class are surprisingly diverting, with gossip and back-stabbing and political intrigues. Emily Blunt, who stole “The Devil Wears Prada” from Streep and Hathaway, is a bit thin and sharp of face compared to Victoria's portraits, but her liveliness and energy are a delight to watch when the princess sets her teeth and digs in her heels; and she has too much fun turning Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) into the perfect husband, in spite of his bumbling tutors.
Writer Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) has given us some historical scenes word-for-word, and tweaked some others for dramatic impact. Albert, for instance, did not take a bullet for Victoria when someone took a couple of shots at her carriage, because the deluded teen-ager, Edward Oxford, missed both times, and may not have loaded his pistols with anything but powder. (Oxford was locked away as insane, and eventually sent to Australia after he promised never to come back.)
We have Paul Bettany playing Lord Melbourne as a handsome young rakehell, to give some credence to the attraction Victoria feels for her mentor, who was actually 58 when she was crowned.
(Melbourne also had a secret reputation that could have added some spice to the screenplay. Cambridge historian Boyd Hilton remarks, "...it is irrefutable that Melbourne's personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity.” My word! Perhaps a bit kinkier than the producers were willing to go...)
There are lots of people who see movies like this, spankings aside, as a big bore, and there are some long stretches where the characters mostly read each other's letters aloud that might play better with dancing girls or an elephant stampede. But for those of us who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing we like.