The Young Victoria is not a bad film, but it suffers in comparison to the three films it begs comparison to: 2007 Best Picture nominee The Queen, Dame Judi Dench’s Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominee Mrs. Brown, and Cate Blanchett’s 1998 starmaker Elizabeth.
The biggest problem is that Julian Fellowes’ (Gosford Park) screenplay lacks depth of, say, Peter Morgan’s Blair/Windsor action. As Anthony Lane argues, part of The Queen’s brilliance is watching Tony Blair both push against and learn from the monarchy at the same time, which became the m.o. for his “third way” Clintonian style of governing. Director Stephen Frears contrasts the high-ceilinged formal elegance of Buckingham Palace with the dowdy claustrophobia, and downright common-ness, of 10 Downing Street. He stretches Tony Blair like taffy between the raging populism of his wife and the enduring, somehow endearing, elitism of the Queen. Frears and Morgan try to puzzle out the monarchy’s relevance in a messy democracy, as embodied in Blair’s dubbing of Diana as “The People’s Princess.” It’s a great film.
The Young Victoria, however, is a coming of age story wrapped in costume drama—if Molly Ringwold had turned down Pretty in Pink for a shot at “respectability” in a Merchant Ivory Oscar bait film, this might have been the perfect screenplay. The teenage Victoria deals with being the favorite niece (and crown princess) of crazy old drunk uncle King William (Jim Broadbent), then tells off the ambitious, manipulative stepdad (Mark Strong) and her weak, complicit mother (Miranda Richardson). But will she find true love? Can she resist the charms of older, handsome popular guy Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), or will she choose as her coronation date the awkward, nerdy Albert (Rupert Friend) who sees the real Victoria? There’s some political hoo-hah surrounding all this, but Victoria reminds everybody that “though I am young and experienced, I will learn” and all will be right with the kingdom. All you need is love.
This is not to say that Queen Victoria is dull—or worse, offers moviemakers no great source material. If The Queen is The Old Victorian, then Mrs. Brown is The Middle Aged Victoria—or, if you prefer, Victoria in Real Life. John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) tackled the difficult middle period of Queen Victoria’s reign in Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench and comedian Billy Connolly as the Queen’s manservant who became her confidant and platonic work husband. John Brown convinced the Queen, during an intense period of reclusive, black-clad widowhood, to re-emerge into public life and restore the popularity of the monarchy. The film isn’t great (Madden has rarely acquitted himself well, outside of Shakespeare—he gave us this Nic Cage disaster that’s worth the repossession of at least two sports cars), but the material is interesting and the casting is inspired. Dench plays the Queen like a black hole, where all life gets sucked in to never be seen again; Connolly brings light to her life with his “I’ll say anything!” candor, loosening the pull of her grief not just for personal reasons, but because her duty calls for it.
Beyond the human story, Mrs. Brown tries to capture the moment when the former, fully sovereign monarchy gives way to republicanism. As Shakespeare’s Henry V observes in his only soliloquy after his coronation, there is no “real” Hal, only the role he plays as king. But, as the monarchy became more ceremonial after the disastrous reigns of George III and IV, it became more important to their influence and wealth that the royals be liked—in other words, to be the human embodiment of the aspirations of the people. This is what the Scottish highlander teaches (in the same manner as he taught the gifted class at Millard Fillmore High) the venerable national treasure.
But this is only a four year period, so how else do you properly honor the longest-ruling female monarch in history? The Young Victoria similarly tries to focus on one era of the great Queen, but the coming of age story of feels slight—especially when compared to Cate Blanchett’s emergence as Queen Elizabeth in her 1998 Oscar role. That too was a coming of age role, but fleshed out by Shakespeare’s Henry V idea that the perfect Christian monarch ceases to be human once (s)he wears the crown. The moment when Queen Elizabeth unveils herself as The Virgin Queen, married only to her country, is the moment when Elizabeth swallows her humanity and gives herself, Christ-like, to her duty as the vicar of God. It’s also the moment when Cate Blanchett became a major star—the ice queen of the A-List.
That seems to be the intent of The Young Victoria for Emily Blunt, but how could she measure up to the seventh most popular Briton of all time? The courtship of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria is a touching story, but the Queen’s real legacy lies in the transition to the modern constitutional monarchy during her reign. As the American experiment pushed Old Europe to more populist reforms and the industrial revolution sparked great social change, the monarchy’s role became much more symbolic. Thus, the monarchy had to not only identify with the people, but embody their aspirations in the way they live. Out with the sex scandals and gross spending and obesity; in with “family values” that the emerging middle class could admire—somehow, Victoria had to create the paradox that the nobility are “the people.”
Victoria’s nine children and forty-some grandchildren married across the continent, uniting Europe as a family of nations—and most importantly for her people, keeping the British out of a major war for nearly a century. Whatever we may say about the evils of imperialism (which should actually go without saying), Victoria played the key role in creating the empire upon which the sun never set. Her influence helped shaped many reforms that emboldened the British middle class, like The Education Act, The Mines Act, The Public Health and Artisan’s Dwelling Acts, and several others. The Queen was not a populist; she didn’t support certain Reform Acts that would extend republicanism, and her interest in peace was primarily to extend the empire. Still, her taste still influences British style—how much of what we read, wear, see, and live is described as Victorian?
In short, Queen Victoria is the world’s first modern monarch. Emily Blunt seems capable of handling the role—she did, after all, handle a queen with a bigger god complex and her own personal guillotine. Instead of The Young Victoria, the movie should have been The Prime of Victoria or How to Build an Empire in Sixty Years or Vic and Albert Go to White Castle or just something that tells the story of how Queen Victoria became an adjective for all time. The film hints at this—Albert is something of a compassionate conservative, talking constantly about cutting wasteful spending while improving conditions for the working class. But in the end, the film merely suggests the complexities of Victoria’s legacy without really describing the why and how it happened. Though Emily Blunt may get nominated for this role, that’s the great movie—and the Oscar role—for whomever wants to seize the crown.