The Young Victoria
Special to The History Place
The end of the first decade of the 21st century may be remembered as the moment when Hollywood, once and for all, abandoned historical accuracy for dramatic impact. Most notable is Inglourious Basterds, reviewed by me for The History Place not long ago. Director Quentin Tarantino literally rewrote the end of World War II in Europe by blowing up the entire Nazi hierarchy at a film premiere in Paris. Director Jean-Marc Vallee is not so heavy handed in exercising poetic license in Young Victoria.
However, the luxurious costumer about the Britain's longest-reigning monarch’s coming of age highlights an entirely fictitious event – her husband, Prince Albert, suffers a shoulder wound while shielding his sovereign spouse from an assassin’s pistol ball. In real life, this act of heroism simply never happened.
Screenwriter Julian Fellowes explained that the fabricated crisis is intended to exemplify Albert’s devotion to his royal bride. Fair enough, I guess. A film can only be so long, and portraying devotion in a less dramatic fashion might have been too tedious.
At any rate, this complaint aside, Young Victoria is a delight to those historians and history buffs who, like me, love the Victorian era with all its trappings and intrigues. Unlike many historical costumers, this one does not come across as a bunch of miscast actors parading around in ridiculous period garb. Filmed on location at Westminster Abbey, Lincoln Cathedral, Blenheim Place, and several castles, the production is well-staffed by the lovely Emily Blunt in the title role, supported by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent in a brilliant, hilarious portrayal of William IV; Miranda Richardson in a complex recreation of Victoria’s ambitious, scheming, yet ever-loving mother; Paul Bettany (who won me as a fan forever with his Surgeon Stephen Maturin in 2003’s Master and Commander) as the Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, and Rupert Friend as – pardon the pun – Victoria’s best friend and princely mate. These terrific actors wear their uniforms, ball gowns and outlandish headgear as if they had been born to them. In short, they carry it along and carry it off.
The story is age-old. We saw it before in Elizabeth, reviewed in this space a dozen years ago by Fred Harvey. In that movie, Kate Blanchet gave us the young Beth’s hazardous assent to father Henry VIII’s throne. The parallel to Blunt’s Young Victoria is compelling. The latter princess likewise is severely tested – albeit assassination or incarceration in the tower by royal rivals were not real threats in 19th century Britain – as they most certainly were some three centuries earlier.
Rather, Victoria’s challenge was to resist the intense efforts of her mother and mom’s private secretary/probable paramour to push the teenaged princess into executing a regency agreement. Successfully resisting their pressure, Victoria achieves her majority at 18, mourns the demise of Uncle William, and is crowned. Meanwhile, through occasional visits and frequent correspondence, Albert wins the child-queen’s love and respect. But, proud and determined, Victoria makes a few nasty blunders, resulting in scandal and some street protests, before deciding she needs the clever, devoted Albert at her side.
This is an engaging story of love, family, politics and statecraft, well-blended and well-told. I for one would have left the theater fully satisfied without the punch line of a foiled assassination attempt. But what the heck! If you share my enthusiasm for all things Victorian, Young Victoria is a great addition to a genre, which includes such other recent entrants as 2002’s remake of The Four Feathers. Both of my thumbs are up for this one.
Rated PG for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence, and brief incidental language and smoking.
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Jim Castagnera is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" [Praeger 2009] and 17 other books.