A late-in-the-year pleasant surprise is the best way to describe Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria, a film I dreaded the prospect of so much that I put off seeing it as long as possible. I mean as much as I liked Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and this year’s Sunshine Cleaning, could anything sound less enticing than the romance of the old gal on the Bombay gin bottle and the man perpetually in need of being let out of that tobacco can of prank-call legend? Even the realization that the characters would be considerably less ossified than those ingrained images wasn’t enough to make it seem much more exciting. However, director Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Separate Lies) have done something very close to exciting.
In terms of story, it’s a solid combination of material you probably already know—at least in rough form—and the kind of court intrigue that is the backbone of all historical dramas of this particular type. Fellowes delivers all of this, but he also delivers considerably more. The major—and even some of the minor—characters all seem human and vibrant. Whether it’s the carefully nuanced portrait of Blunt’s Victoria herself or the over-the-top characterization of Jim Broadbent’s King William, there’s a sense that these are real people with real passions and personalities. They’re people in whom you can invest some degree of human interest.
Where Fellowes leaves off, Vallée steps in. Not only is this a gorgeous-looking movie, but it also has a unique feel. Part of this comes from Vallée’s insistence that Fellowes rework much of the screenplay in terms of a musical composition. In interviews, Vallée has said that the film is a kind of waltz being done by the characters trying to position themselves in the drama, but there’s more to it than that. The film is kept moving—brilliantly—largely by being built on cross-cutting. It’s constantly a case of one scene playing off another, making things seem to move faster than unbroken scenes would have done.
Then there’s the physical look of the film, which is quite remarkable. Despite his insistence on capturing the very rich palette, Vallée is intent on making a film that looks like it’s taking place entirely either in candlelight or in light coming in through the windows. But lighting is only part of it. There’s also a marked tendency for shots to be done with lenses open all the way (a necessity of low-light photography), giving the film an extremely shallow depth of field. Even when the film is outdoors, Vallée tends to favor this approach, constantly using shifts in focus to direct the viewer’s eye.
Of course, all this would matter very little if The Young Victoria didn’t engage us as romance and drama, which it happily does. There’s both fire and backbone in Emily Blunt’s Victoria, but there’s also a sense of the uncertainty of youth—and the fear of being taken advantage of by those who would manipulate her to their advantage. Similarly fine is Rupert Friend’s (Cheri) Albert, who moves from pragmatic politician to love-struck suitor to unfulfilled prince consort and beyond with a depth I’d previously not expected from the actor. But in many ways, the smaller roles hold the film in place. Paul Bettany’s scheming charmer, Lord Melbourne, is a standout—all the more so in his final scene, which is played with moving conviction. Miranda Richardson as Victoria’s conflicted mother is also of note.
If I can find any quibble with this richly rewarding film, it’s simply that it’s about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert—a subject that in itself just isn’t that inherently exciting. That the film makes the basic material so good and so entertaining is something of a miracle. Rated PG for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence and brief incidental language and smoking.