There’s at least one upside to The Young Victoria, Jean-Marc Vallée’s syrupy interpretation of teen romance among 19th-century Anglo-Saxon royalty: Its vapid fluffiness makes the similarly frou-frou but ultimately more politically considerate Marie Antoinette difficult to hastily dismiss. While not at all up to the Coppola scion’s penetratingly distaff par, the latter film evoked a crumbling, soon-to-be decapitated monarchy through a pageant of equivocating surfaces—gloss without maturity, tradition without responsibility, pampered skin without lust—and thereby curtly implied France’s seething social climate through the prism of its godheads’ juvenile excess. Coppola compels us to sympathize with the poisson-out-of-water Marie while not quite allowing us to mourn her guillotined neck (the film portentously ends with the regal couple’s escape to Varennes), and it’s this postmodern balance, underscored with an anachronistic soundtrack, that validates the film’s historical experimentation.
The subdued, courtly milieu of Victoria is divided from that of Antoinette by far more than four decades and the English Channel. While both biopics track their protagonist’s jejune ascendancy to a troubled throne, the comparative robustness of Victoria’s legacy—taking into account not only her wildly eventful, 60-plus year reign, but the fact that her plump, disenchanted visage may be the one we most readily associate with queenliness—requires more rigorous unpacking than Julian Fellows’s young adultish script and Hagen Bogdanski’s glabrous widescreen opulence provide. The particulars of Victoria’s stormy adolescence arguably molded both an archetype and an international, or imperial, timbre, and yet Vallée eschews the career implications of his story’s cascade of events in an attempt to tell a banal, if coherent, love story; it’s almost as if he doesn’t trust his audience’s familiarity with the subject matter, so he flattens the historical fodder’s political acuteness into a mindless assortment of “universal” wants and needs. Where Antoinette offered an eagle-eyed view of the roots of upheaval from behind closed, confused doors, Victoria reverses the rhetorical approach so that all roads lead to the fatuity of the film’s central romance.
When the barely legal princess (played with vulnerable sensuality by Emily Blunt) is shown under the strenuous lock-and-key manipulation of the infamous “Kensington System,” a putative method of protection established by Victoria’s jaundiced duchess mother (Miranda Richardson) and her corrupt comptroller Conroy (Mark Strong), she snarls priggishly and threatens her overbearing authorities with drastic repercussions upon her coronation, but the recalcitrance doesn’t run much deeper than an exaggerated coming-of-age Electra complex. And when Victoria’s mutton-chopped Prince Charming—Albert, her first cousin (Rupert Friend)—wheedles his way into her graces upon his uncle’s urging, the narrative swiftly succumbs to furtive, rebellious passion.
For the majority of the running time, Victoria is a repressed teenager in heat, giddily exchanging secret letters, petulantly rejecting her mother’s attempts to claim the throne for herself via regency, and fusing the twin goals of ruling and demolishing her chastity into a mundanely sexy desire for opaque independence—which is all the more ironic when one considers how little legislative power Victoria had compared to her illustrious Prime Ministers. Vallée also knows which of these achievements is the more commercially viable when visually rendered (his camera is constantly catching the queen-to-be sulking in her nightgown or fidgeting in bed, while the tepidly PG clawing and smooching of Victoria’s marriage night drags on for nearly twice as long as her crowning scene) and he positions the Queen’s sub-erotic fulfillment as a panacea that solves the Bedchamber Crisis (via Albert’s alluring shrewdness) and transcends the years of glacial isolation she was forced to undergo. There’s no hint of the sexually conservative standards the royal family would set for the remainder of the 19th century—a now infamous and much-maligned trend that may have had its roots in Victoria’s draconian rearing.
The failure of the film is not so much a lack of historical accuracy or detail—in fact, some conversations have reputedly been transcribed verbatim from personal journals and other source documents, and the florid art direction by Paul Inglis recalls the painstakingly baroque facsimiles of Alexander Korda’s biographical dramas—as a dearth of historical liveliness. The motivations of the various elite satellites in Victoria’s orbit (all with very real, if deceased, counterparts) are never questioned beyond their stark political surfaces, and the national significance these figures and their decisions may have had becomes subordinate to the perfunctory exploration of their effects on Victoria’s nascent womanhood and wifely affection.
The origins of Albert’s interest in social reform and culture aren’t investigated beyond their use in his oddly detached wooing of the princess, and when the obsequious, self-aggrandizing tutelage of one-time Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany, in the movie’s cleverest performance) leads the new queen astray economically, the result is a scuffle between the royal newlyweds that disregards—aside from a single glimmer of palatial violence—the smatterings of socio-political unrest Victoria contended with as a fledgling queen. By the time the concluding assassination attempt on the queen’s life embellishes Albert’s husbandly sacrifice with a hunky flesh wound, our patience with the film has already been capsized by unrepentant romanticism. Ultimately, this is not a film about Victoria at any age—comparing Blunt’s smooth pulchritude to vintage photographs of the queen’s matronly dourness and angular facial features should be proof enough of that—but another movie peddling fetishized costumed courtship with a historicity garnish.