Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: "The Young Victoria"

Many people consider period costume dramas to be stuffy and rigid. The wonderful, vibrant "The Young Victoria" should perforate those preconceptions.

This gripping tale of Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne of England is a full-blooded portrait of a young woman of passion and intellectual firepower, who held onto her authority despite myriad attempts by the existing patriarchy to wrest it away and make her a puppet.

Emily Blunt, who at age 26 has crackled in numerous supporting roles like "The Devil Wears Prada," leaps to the fore of her generation to join peers like Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway. Her performance as Victoria is subtle and layered -- not to mention quite passionate, belying the name of a queen that begat an adjective, Victorian, synonymous with repressed sexuality.

The story opens with Victoria age 17, heir-apparent of her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) but living under the stern yoke of her mother the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her consort, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, imposing and impressive).

The pair intentionally designed every aspect of her life since girlhood to render Victoria weak and dependent upon them, so they can establish a regency and rule in her stead. They even created a set of rules, the Kensington System, in which the princess was never left unattended, even forced to have an adult hold her hand while she ascended the palace stairs.

Inexperienced but willful, Victoria bides her time until her 18th birthday and the last sands run out on the ailing monarch's reign. It's fascinating to watch the various powers maneuver to align themselves this way and that in preparation for the coming transfer of royal authority.

For example, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), the leader of the current government, slyly ingratiates himself as Victoria's secretary, when his real ambitions are to secure power for his own political party. This extends even to the appointment of the new queen's ladies-in-waiting; she sets off a scandal early in her monarchy when she refuses to add a few members loyal to the opposing faction to her staff.

Things are especially delicate when it comes to marriage. Victoria's other uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), has trained young Prince Albert to woo Victoria, in hopes of using that influence to get England to assist him in European affairs. Leopold at one point becomes frustrated that Albert hasn't yet infiltrated the young queen's bed.

"You are the next piece in the game," he tells Albert.

Despite being played like a pawn, Albert finds himself genuinely drawn to Victoria, even confiding in her at their first meeting the purpose for which he has been sent. Albert is played by Rupert Friend, another young actor (who bears an astonishing resemblance to Orlando Bloom) with a budding resume.

The film's primary delight is in watching Victoria and Albert, who were both raised to be creatures beholden to others, form a long-distance bond kept alive primarily through letters. Their partnership allowed them to shirk aside the manipulations of various selfish parties and set their own course.

Director Jean-Marc Valée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes take a few liberties with the historical record -- for example, using an assassination attempt on the queen for dramatic effect (in actuality, neither of them was hurt).

But in delivering such a deliciously hearty, fervent take on life beneath the crowns and powdered wigs, "The Young Victoria" can be forgiven for eschewing a dry recitation of history.

3.5 stars

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