Monday, July 20, 2009

The Young Victoria **

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend
Miranda Richardson, Paul Bettany, Mark Strong
Thomas Kretschmann, Jim Broadbent

Before she became the symbol of all that is frumpy, strong willed and well, Victorian, Queen Victoria of England was a free spirited young woman with problems like every other teenager; including repressed passions, irrational decision making and a, Royal, family that didn't understand her.
Or so we are told by director Jean-Marc Vallée, who takes us to the years before and right after the Queen's coronation.
When the movie begins, with portentous title cards suggesting the melodramatic chaos that will ensue, Victoria is a child "jailed" within a palace under the watchful eye of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Richardson) and her controlling adviser Sir John Conroy (Strong).
"What little girl does not dream of growing up as a princess" asks Victoria before Vallée turns her into Jane Eyre.
But this lasts only for a few scenes and before long the child grows up into Emily Blunt. As she approaches her eighteenth birthday, the soon to be queen, is harassed by the people who have some sort of interest in her.
On one side there's her mother and Sir John, who constantly try to make her sign regency papers to take over her crown. Then there's also her uncle, King William IV (Broadbent) who's set on having his niece marry his son and rule the country.
Across the channel there's her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (Kretschmann) who needs British support to continue his kingdom and enlists Prince Albert of Germany (Friend) to go and seduce his cousin Victoria for him.
Before the Princess goes "nervous breakdown" on them all, her uncle dies and she is crowned. She moves to Buckingham Palace (the first English monarch to live there!), befriends Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Bettany) and falls in love with Albert, while surviving political crisis (over ladies in waiting?), giving birth to nine children and an assassination attempt.
Told with absolutely no scandalous theories, shocking sexual romps in the royal chamber (despite the Prince's famous ring), or even the most minimal attempt of questioning, the film plays out as very by the numbers and becomes pretty forgettable.
The screenplay, written by Julian Fellowes, is stacked with over the top lines meant to be opulent and Vallée's directorial tactics don't help in toning down the cheesiness.
"Do you ever feel like you're a chess piece in a game being played against your will?" asks Prince Albert to Victoria, while they play chess and are surrounded by her family and advisers...
Vallée is certainly not the master of subtlety (his previous film "C.R.A.Z.Y" was an exercise in coming of age/coming out clichés) and he fills "The Young Victoria" with obvious symbols, lazy time fluidity and dramatic tension that is only suggested by ominous music, fast editing and actors with eyes wide open (or the hairs in their arms raised in what proves to be an almost laughable moment).
The ensemble provides the job one would expect from renowned British actors in period costume; Richardson plays regretful meek, Strong is cartoon villain and Broadbent screams like only a King would be allowed to.
Friend is rather delightful and surprising, playing Albert with the suave coquetishness of a silent film movie star and his scenes truly give the film the spark of naive romance that would make Jane Austen TV adaptation fans fall in love with him.
While Blunt, who looks absolutely radiant, gives Victoria a sense of serenity and ironwill. She is able to play Victoria like a woman full of life, while infusing her with the stern, melancholy she would acquire in latter years and the one we have come to know of her.
But even if their work is good, the director makes sure they never feel like actual human beings, but as movie characters.
On the hands of someone with more expertise, the romance between Albert and Victoria wouldn't have been so sure, they would've had you doubting your knowledge of history or even popular culture.
The director could've taken two paths and either make this an ironic melodrama or a tempestuous postmodernist revision of history, instead he takes the safest path and doesn't do a single thing with the material.
Fans of shallow costume drama will go ga-ga over this queen as visually it's stunning (every pan and tilt seem to be designed to make audiences drool and Sandy Powell's costume design is, unsurprisingly, excellent), but there is little emotional or cerebral background to keep you interested.
The director's seeming fear of disrespect leaves him with flat characters and no spice. You can note this in how we see Victoria drawing in several occasions, yet the camera never shows us the results. Is it because the pictures might not satisfy us and we would end up thinking the Queen to lack talent?
During one scene Victoria sits in the theater under the sneaky, judgmental watch of the entire audience, Lord Melbourne asks her to kick them out to which she replies "if I ban everyone who thinks me wrong, you and I will be left alone."
In his too reverential "The Young Victoria" even she has been banned by Vallée.

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