Here we are, everyone–the last Shamedown of 2018–can you believe it? If you’re coming in late to the party or just want a refresher as to how this thing got started, please visit Cinema Shame. The full Shamedown roster can be found here.
Very few monarchs have been as influential as Queen Victoria. Seriously, the woman changed the world. She was queen for most of her life, ascending to the throne in 1837 at the age of eighteen and reigning until her death in 1901. People looked on her as being unfailingly moral and upright, and society followed her lead. Victoria popularized roast chicken and white wedding dresses. After her husband Albert died, she showed a world where death was commonplace how to make grief into an art form. Even roughly one-hundred twenty years after Victoria’s reign ended, people are still intrigued by her, and one interpretation of her life can be found in the 2009 film, The Young Victoria. Starring Emily Blunt as the titular character and co-produced by Sarah Ferguson and Martin Scorsese, the movie deftly explores Victoria’s early life and her romance with her future prince consort, Albert.
The film opens with a brief bit about what kind of life Victoria leads. Every part of her existence is strictly controlled, and she’s never really alone. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) shares a room with her. She can’t go to school with other children or leave the palace except on select occasions. She can’t even go up or down the stairs without holding someone’s hand.
Victoria is the only heir to the English throne, and as such, she’s protected to a fault. Also as such, there are greedy eyes sizing her up and looking to replace her. Since she’s a teenager, and because almost everyone dismisses her ability to rule, her uncle, Sir John Conroy, wants her to sign a document allowing him to be regent until she’s of age.
Victoria smells a plot, and stubbornly refuses to sign, to the chagrin of her mother, who also wants Sir John to control the country. Victoria resents her mother and Sir John hanging on her like vultures, but she also is conscious of the authority she has over them and uses it to her advantage, with a rather pointed dash of rebellion. Sir John in particular growls and thunders around, but there’s really nothing he can do about it.
Outside forces have their eye on her, too. King Leopold of Belgium wants to worm his way into British royalty, so he grooms his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend) into wooing Victoria. He’s drilled on Victoria’s favorite opera, which is Bellini’s Norma, as well as her other likes and dislikes, her daily life, each person who’s remotely close to her. He and his brother make a trip to Kensington to see her, and Albert stammers out that he passed the time reading The Bride of Lammermoor, which just happens to be Victoria’s favorite book.
The artifice between Victoria and Albert quickly drops, and during a walk in the garden he lets slip that he likes Strauss and Schubert instead of Bellini. Victoria is enchanted that Albert is honest with her. She’s futher intrigued when Albert remarks over a game of chess that he hopes Victoria will find someone to rule beside her instead of for her. The two of them promise to write each other when Albert goes home.
Victoria has other allies, too. Her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent) gets on Sir John and the Duchess’s case when they protest at His Majesty’s desire to be closer to his niece, and increase her fortune. He’s ticked at the Duchess anyway, because at his birthday celebration she commandeered seventeen rooms in William’s palace without a by-his-leave. It gives William an excellent excuse to kick them out. He also sends Lord Melbourne (played by an unusually hairy Paul Bettany) to see Victoria, who invites him to serve as her private secretary and eye on Parliament.
King William dies right after Victoria turns eighteen, upsetting Sir John and the Duchess’s plans and thrusting Victoria into a role in which she feels both prepared and inadequate. Melbourne is endlessly helpful, though, and Victoria picks ladies-in-waiting from among his friends’ wives. This ruffles feathers in Parliament, since it’s politically one-sided, but Victoria stands her ground. She also separates herself from her mother and Sir John, treating both of them slightly better than pariahs.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Albert worries Victoria is getting too close to Melbourne, and is advised to make his presence felt. So he goes back to visit her, and even attends her coronation. He wants to take things to the next level, but Victoria is resistant, because she wants to prove she can be queen on her own. Not only that, but Victoria as sovereign has to propose to him. She obviously likes him, though, so Albert doesn’t have too much to worry about.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Victoria and Albert get married. Then it’s a matter of both of them adjusting to new situations, not just the marriage, but the fact that Victoria is queen and Albert is Prince-consort. Albert has gone from one box to another, and he has to find his own freedom. That he succeeds isn’t really a spoiler either. The way it’s portrayed in the film isn’t exactly the way it happened, but seeing he and Victoria become the loving power couple history remembers them as is gratifying.
What really surprised me about The Young Victoria is that the screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. I’m not usually a big fan of his because his work just doesn’t grab me, but he nailed this portrait of the young queen. He did change some details, such as the sheer number of letters Victoria and Albert wrote each other–Fellowes didn’t want the film to devolve into a lot of missal-opening. He also had Albert attend Victoria’s coronation, which didn’t happen either.
The Young Victoria has been criticized for what some might term bland romance, but we’re talking about courtly love, and anyway, Victoria had too many chaperones for she and Albert to get hot and heavy early on. However correct the film’s the romance might be, though, it was toned down a little bit–Victoria and Albert were a very passionate pair. Victoria wrote in her diary about her wedding night:
“To lie by his side, and in his arms, and on his dear bosom, and be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief!”
“When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful face by my side, it was more than I can express!
“Oh! was ever woman so blessed as I am.” –Queen Victoria, February of 1840
Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, not only co-produced, but conceived the idea in the first place, and it lends the film major street cred. Her ex-husband being related to Victoria allowed her to pull a lot of strings as far as authenticity went. Among other perks, the costume designers were able to examine the real Victoria’s clothes, including her wedding dress.
The Duchess also greatly influenced the look of the movie. Without her, it would have been shot in Eastern Europe or Germany. Instead, Fergie orchestrated location shooting in places the real Victoria actually been to, such as Westminster Abbey. They couldn’t shoot everywhere, though–Ham House stood in for Kensington Palace. While Victoria never lived there, the interiors look the same as they did in the seventeenth century, which would have been pretty close to what she would have known at Kensington. Lancaster House stood in for Buckingham Palace, which for obvious reasons was unavailable.
Speaking of Buckingham Palace, The Young Victoria got a stamp of approval, albeit with small reservations, from Victoria’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II. She thought the uniforms didn’t look very English and didn’t like some of the other liberties taken with the history, but she still enjoyed herself.
I can’t match Her Majesty’s personal stake in the film, but I savored The Young Victoria tremendously. Emily Blunt is a perfect Victoria because she’s feisty and steely–it was clear she got the character. Rupert Friend plays Albert remarkably well, and even looks very much like him, although the real Albert didn’t have the chiseled cheekbones Friend does. His chemistry with Blunt has an intelligent and promising restraint: When these two look at each other, there’s more in their eyes than what they’re allowed to say, and that’s intriguing.
Fergie, Scorsese and company really did themselves and Victoria proud, and it’s inspired me to find out even more about Victoria and Albert. What a heritage these two left for England, the monarchy, and the world.
And with that, we have our final Shamedown. Hope you all enjoyed this series, because I sure have. I’m hoping Cinema Shame has something new for us in 2019, too. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check back here Sunday for this year’s What A Character Blogathon!
This film is available on Amazon.