...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Some films strive to be artistic. Some beautiful or meaningful. Others aim to entertain and still others to instruct, touch, or perhaps shed light on some truth. Seldom does a film attempt to do all the aforementioned, and even more rarely do any succeed at such a lofty goal. The Young Victoria is one such singular gem.
I almost missed this remarkable film, as I initially avoided it in the assumption that it was yet another monarchy story that would either glorify royalty or sully the royals’ names by parading on-screen the privileged immoralities of past aristocrats. But I was mistaken to believe that this film was another fluff piece where ornate costumes would be the only thing worth seeing. Instead, The Young Victoria is one of the most complete packages of artistic production that I have seen in modern films, and, as icing on the cake, affirms marriage and other moral values with profound impact.
In the highly-charged political world of nineteenth-century England, a girl grows up in a castle, spending her formative years surrounded by luxuries and privileges, yet ending up less coddled and privileged than the average non-royal child. This girl is Victoria, the next in line for the throne of England. As we peer into Victoria’s world as a child, we learn that her childhood is not what one would expect. Certainly, she enjoys a life many dream of, but, because of the constant battle for political control that is waged around her, Victoria’s daily existence feels to her like living in a prison.
Her head “jailor,” is Sir John Conroy, a man who holds the ironically titled position of Controller for Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Sir John is so effective in his job, that he controls not only the household, as he is supposed to, but also Victoria’s mother. When Victoria is young, Sir John does his best to seize dominion of her, as well, hoping that he can force Victoria to sign an agreement to have a regency, allowing her mother, and vicariously Sir John, to rule England until Victoria comes of age.
Setting up many irrational, stringent rules, he strives to have every detail of Victoria’s young life constrained and regulated beyond sensible bounds. He succeeds in controlling Victoria’s behavior when she is young, but, from an early point in the film, we see that she has an emotional independence and strength that will likely never be conquered by Sir John’s intimidation.
Yet Sir John is not alone in his attempts to control and usurp the crown from Victoria. She is surrounded by relatives and strangers alike who want to take their shot at harnessing and taming the young heir to the throne. Among them is King Leopold, uncle to Victoria and ruler of Belgium. King Leopold takes a different tact than most and aims to win over Victoria’s royal support by ensuring that her heart belongs to the young person under his control—his nephew, Prince Albert. Rather than trying to usurp the throne from Victoria, King Leopold has Prince Albert trained and prepped in how to win Victoria’s heart and sends the young man off to meet her.
What no one anticipates is that Prince Albert might fall in love with the young Victoria and refuse to play his uncle’s game. For a game—albeit a serious one—their lives seem to be. Like a wooden puppet spotting her strings, Victoria confides to Prince Albert that she feels like a piece on a chess board, with everyone around her trying to pull and place her where they want so they can win. As one in the same position, Prince Albert gives her the sage advice that she had better learn the rules of the game until she can play it better than her adversaries.
Thanks to a superbly paced and executed script, watching Victoria and Prince Albert play this “game” through the rest of the film is a fascinating and highly entertaining experience. Though viewers already know much of the outcome of Queen Victoria’s life and reign, the details that surrounded her journey to the throne and the tumultuous early years of her reign are not common knowledge, allowing this story to easily snatch and hold an audience’s attention. The captivating true story is also enhanced by unusually intelligent, often profound dialogue and a unique intercutting of sequences that add movement, speed, and excitement to scenes that could have otherwise been slow or even dull.
Yet the script is only the beginning of the filmmakers’ prowess and innovation. Not since Citizen Kane have I seen such astounding cinematography. This is not the cinematography that garners acclaim merely because the film happens to be set in scenic locations. Rather, this is camerawork that displays the breathtaking artistry and storytelling that can be expressed through the lens of a talented director and cinematographer team. If not for the high production values in every respect, one might guess from the camerawork that The Young Victoria must be a small, independent film, as the innovative visual style displays a boldness and artistry that, these days, is usually only seen at independent film festivals.
The filmmakers set their film apart by mixing old school with new. Rather than using the modern tendency to lean heavily on frequent cuts, extensive forethought and complicated blocking allow this film to rely on refined focus pulls to control perspective, flow, and dramatic emphasis. Modern equipment and techniques, blended with the aforementioned skillful blocking, also enable The Young Victoria to have other longer, more innovative and artistic sequences than are attempted by most filmmakers.
Perhaps most unusual of all is that the majority of the novel cinematography is done not for the sake of experimentation or to capture irrelevant imagery. With the exception of one or two moments when the filmmakers may have been a bit too in love with their camerawork (which, it must be said, is so stunning that I can hardly fault them for the indulgence), the inventive filming is used to compliment and heighten the power of the story.
The Young Victoria’s impact is further enabled by the skilled actors that fill every scene. There seems to be no weak link in the line-up of this cast, from the veteran actors who bring the nuances learned from years in front of the camera to the young, up-and-coming talents who give one hope for a bright future in film acting. Emily Blunt as Victoria illuminates the screen with a beauty, depth, and relatable appeal that brings the audience fully into the world and heart of Queen Victoria like few actors of her generation could. Playing Prince Albert, Rupert Friend provides a nice foil to Victoria with his cautious demeanor that cloaks wisdom beyond his years and an unwavering commitment to do what he believes is right.
Together, these two actors achieve a chemistry that brings an irresistible vitality to this film’s depiction of marriage. Like few other films, The Young Victoria balances the modern emphasis on a woman’s independence and equality with a positive view of the marital relationship. Victoria initially chafes at the idea of marrying, even as she falls in love, because she does not want to exchange her childhood prison for another—meaning marriage. Through growing love, the council of wise elders, and some disastrous mistakes that make her realize her need for a partner, Victoria begins to see that marriage to Prince Albert need not mean she will give up her freedom, but may instead be the most empowering decision she could ever make.
[SPOILER WARNING] In an atypical move for most film romances, the story continues after Victoria and Prince Albert marry, and we get to witness the couple’s struggle to find their roles in the unique situation of a Queen and her non-ruling husband. This dynamic is not easy, and Victoria makes things worse by extending her fear of being usurped to include even her husband. Though Prince Albert is desperate to help Victoria with her duties, she refuses to allow him to do so, petrified that she will lose her status as Queen and be controlled if she lets him take charge of any tasks, no matter how small. In an enormously validating portrayal of marital love and friendship, Victoria and Prince Albert weather this storm and survive the carnage to become the renowned couple who played the game together and, as a result, impacted the world like few others.
While marriage emerges as the most central and exceptionally affirming topic that is illustrated in The Young Victoria, the film explores an abundance of other valuable themes, as well. Among these are the topics of forgiveness, leadership, feminine identity, and social justice, to name a few. Though fraught with moral and wise perspectives on many issues, the movie never becomes heavy, as the messages are subtle and natural outcomes of the story and characters.
The uplifting quality of The Young Victoria is further complimented by the general lack of offensive content. There are only two uses of foul language in the film (including one profanity) and one tastefully handled scene of violence. On the negative side, several of the women in the film wear low-cut dresses, setting a standard for immodesty that is unfortunate.
[SPOILER WARNING] The most potentially objectionable content comes after Prince Albert and Victoria are married, as we see them passionately kissing and clinging to each other in bed (both are clothed in nightgowns). Afterward, they refer to the consummation of their marriage, though not in explicit terms. For more scenes than is necessary, the filmmakers dwell on this “honeymoon” period, showing plenty of kissing, Prince Albert removing Victoria’s stocking with obvious intent, and the two of them beginning to unbutton each other’s collars. Yet these scenes are handled with surprising restraint for a modern film, and, most importantly, they take place within the context of marriage. Though Uncle Leopold once suggests that Prince Albert should get into Victoria’s bed, Prince Albert does no such thing until the proper vows have been made.
If not for these few scenes, this film would be appropriate for children of all ages. However, given the needless emphasis on this aspect of the royal couple’s relationship, which would be better left private, parents should use discretion when deciding if their youngsters will be allowed to watch.
But for adults and older children, The Young Victoria should not be missed. With peerless artistic beauty, brilliant cinematography, excellent direction, skilled acting, a well-written script, and a powerful story that communicates positive messages even as it entertains, this film has all the makings of a true classic that will stand that test of time. In a game of chess, it is an exposed queen that allows the opposing player to win—The Young Victoria presents no such vulnerability, as it stands on this beautiful story of a young queen and calls checkmate to the rest of the film world.
Check out these similar titles:
Roman Holiday (Paramount Pictures, 1953)
Royal Wedding (MGM, 1951)
Enchanted (Walt Disney Pictures, 2007)