|Emily Blunt navigates the politics of teenage Victoria’s ascension in “The Young Victoria.’’|
The Young Victoria
Amid ardor and ambition, it’s not easy being queen
Emily Blunt is said to have fought hard to land the title role in “The Young Victoria,’’ and ambition is the steel spine that underlies and enlivens even this actress’s softest performances. Her grit surfaces here and there throughout the movie, a sweet, stodgy historical romance about the difficulties of being a queen and a young woman, not necessarily in that order. I have an image of Blunt looking wildly about for a royal to play: Blanchett got the young Elizabeth I, Mirren got Elizabeth II, Dench got old Elizabeth I and old Victoria. Who’s left? Lady Jane Grey? A patsy. Bloody Mary? Too nasty. Empress Matilda? Who cares? Wait . . .
So we have “The Young Victoria,’’ the word “The’’ added to prevent wags from mistaking the movie for “Young Frankenstein.’’ Written by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park’’) and directed by Canada’s Jean-Marc Vallée, it’s lavishly appointed tosh that very effectively dramatizes the growing love between Victoria and her first cousin and eventual husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend), and turns distracted and busy whenever it deals with history.
Your heart sinks, in fact, when the opening title cards establishing the historical context leave you scrambling to take notes. Gradually we piece together that the teenage Victoria is a balky pawn in the hands of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (a thin-lipped Miranda Richardson), and her “adviser’’ Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, almost as dastardly as in “Sherlock Holmes’’).
As sole heir of her uncle, King William IV (a magnificently blithering Jim Broadbent), Victoria has the British empire as her rightful due, and everyone wants a piece of her. As in 1998’s “Elizabeth,’’ the drama is in watching an untested girl navigate a sea of sharks to reach the scepter that belongs to her alone.
The difference is that Victoria has someone swimming alongside her. As “The Young Victoria’’ portrays it, Albert is initially handsome bait dangled by his uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), to gain influence in British politics. Both the future queen and the young prince understand this. The shock is that they warm to each other, genuinely and with a secret glee. They’re two shy children of privilege who realize that no one else but they - and certainly not the grown-ups - understand what they’re going through.
The scenes of the couple’s courtship and marriage, then, are extremely charming and even weirdly erotic, because both Blunt and the underrated Friend (“Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont’’) carve out a rich emotional intimacy in the midst of all that duty.
Where “The Young Victoria’’ trips over its diamond-encrusted shoelaces, though, is in keeping up with the political whirl surrounding the young queen’s ascension. Paul Bettany plays Lord Melbourne with a crafty smile and a leonine head of hair, and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss that this noble who offers to be Victoria’s private secretary is also the sitting prime minister.
Their relationship, in fact, led to a crisis in Parliament and in the streets as the opposition objected to Melbourne’s undue influence. This results in some unconvincing muttering among the barely seen masses, one rock through a window, and a rattled Albert getting off a few good barbs against Melbourne.
It’s a muddled but plush experience overall, and if you’re a royalist completist or a historical romantic, you’ll probably have a decent time. As much as Blunt may have wanted the role, though, I’m not sure it suits her. The star ably shows us the earnest young ruler while giving us glimpses of the we-are-not-amused public statue Victoria would become, and she conveys the ardor of an isolated girl realizing, with some astonishment, that she has a soul mate.
But the role calls for a good dollop of British royal naivete, and Blunt, to be blunt, can’t dull her edges enough to play it. We never really believe Sir John or Lord Melbourne or King Leopold constitutes a threat to this girl and, without that, any dramatic suspense evaporates into topiary and velvet. The actress has altered the queen’s cape to fit, but it’s her ambition, not Victoria’s, that keeps peeking through.