Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Young Victoria (GK Films/Sony Pictures, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The Young Victoria, a sumptuously produced 2009 historical spectacle from a British outfit called GK Films, released through Sony Pictures, which I’d stumbled upon in the DVD backlog and wanted to see mainly to compare it with the first three episodes of the more recent British ITV miniseries Victoria, which depicted pretty much the same set of historical events. Both are about the early days of Princess Victoria (incidentally she’s called Victoria in this one even before she assumes the British throne, where the ITV show explained that her original name was Alexandrina and she picked the name Victoria to rule under when she became Queen) and her struggle to establish her royal authority even though she was only 18 when her uncle, William IV, died and she succeeded to the throne. Her adversaries include her own mother (Miranda Richardson) and the head of her mom’s household, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Her allies include the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) of the Whig Party, and her royal courtier (and cousin) and later husband, Prince Albert (played by Rupert Friend as an icon of devastating sexiness and charm). The Young Victoria has its faults — it’s directed in a rather slow-paced fashion by Jean-Marc Vallée (Charles saw enough French-sounding names in the cast and crew lists, especially the latter, that he wondered if this was a British-French co-production), it’s thoroughly drenched in the past-is-brown look (though in the 19th century even the most sumptuous upper-class homes were still lit by candlelight and therefore it’s entirely possible everything in those big interiors did look a dingy brown at all times) and the action is depicted effectively but lacks the crackling immediacy of the more recent ITV production.

But Emily Blunt is excellent as the young Victoria (though Jenna Coleman in the ITV series is just as good) and the film is compelling, depicting Victoria as ferociously strong-willed in resisting the attempts of her mom and Conroy to impose a regent on her (a regent is someone who rules in a monarch’s place when he or she is too young for the throne — when her predecessor died Victoria had just turned 18 but even before there had been fierce pressure on her to sign away her right to rule unaided until she turned 25) and looking for a way to navigate the palace politics and assert her authority. The key line occurs while Victoria and Albert are playing chess with each other and she complains about all the political games that are being played around her, and he says, “That’s why you need to learn to play them, and play them better.” There are interesting differences between the way Julian Fellowes’ script for The Young Victoria portrays the history and the way it was done in the ITV Victoria series — in this version Victoria does not have an unrequited crush on Lord Melbourne (indeed, Fellowes takes it the other way and suggests that Melbourne is deliberately flattering her and acting like a would-be lover to get the Queen to do what he wants) — but it contains some of the same incidents, including the really peculiar gimmick of Tory prime-minister designate Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) insisting that Victoria fire at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and replace them with wives of Tory politicians, and Victoria’s angry refusal to do so on the (entirely reasonable, it seems to me) ground that she shouldn’t have to change the members of her personal household just because the Whigs lost a vote of confidence in Parliament and according to Britain’s Constitutional traditions that meant she was supposed to ask the Tory leader Peel to form the next government. At the same time, the politeness with which the political feuds of Victoria’s time and place were carried out, at least for public consumption, is odd to watch in the middle of the first days of the Trumpocracy and the U.S.’s rule by a megalomaniac dictator whose attitude to anyone who challenges him, from government bureaucrats to newspapers (Trump openly called on someone to buy the New York Times and either “run it right” or close it down!), is get with the program or get out.

One historical error in this film a number of imdb.com “Goofs” contributors pointed out is that it depicts an 1840 assassination attempt on Victoria and Prince Albert heroically putting his own body between hers and the assassin’s, thereby taking the bullet meant for her and ending up with a wounded arm. Apparently, though there were a number of real-life assassination attempts on Victoria and/or Albert, many of them linked to the Chartist movement of activists challenging the malapportionment of districts in the House of Commons and calling for secret ballots, pay for Members of Parliament (so that the non-rich could afford to run) and other reforms to make Britain more democratic (the Chartists were shown and identified by name in the ITV miniseries but not here), none of the assassins got close enough to inflict any actual injuries on the Queen or her husband. Fellowes’ script also depicts Victoria and Albert as sexually attracted to each other and very hot in bed — though the joke “close your eyes and think of England” regarding a woman’s obligation to submit to the dreary routine of sex dates from the Victorian era, this Queen (or at least Fellowes’ version thereof) genuinely enjoys sex with her husband and we get the impression they had nine kids together because they thoroughly appreciated each other’s bedtime company and weren’t procreating just out of a sense of royal obligation. The closing credits claim that Victoria “remains the longest-reigning British sovereign to date,” which was true in 2009 when the film was released, but in 2015 the current Queen Elizabeth II (who apparently is having a royal snit right now because Prime Minister Theresa May invited Donald Trump for a state visit to Britain and the Queen really doesn’t want to have to receive that boor) broke her record.