The Young Victoria
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
When a moviegoer contemplates buying a ticket to a costume drama—the term assigned to the genre in which historical personages cavort for our pleasure in clothing worn today only on Halloween—he must contend with the fear that he will end up with the cinematic equivalent of a creaky second-rate davenport rotting away in a thrift shop. Since the dawn of Hollywood, costume dramas have all too often been persnickety, tiresomely correct, proper to the point of extreme dullness, and, like that davenport, reeking of mildew.
But mustiness is only one of the concerns any serious moviegoer must have about attending a costume drama. The problem is that when costume dramas try to avoid the mold, and are therefore not as careful and respectful of the historical period they evoke, they will commit other sins—particularly those sins that arise when tales of the past are repurposed to make cutesy points about the present, or to wink at today’s audiences for possessing a more advanced sensibility than the characters on screen.
Such a thing happens even in the best of movies—for example, in the otherwise glorious Shakespeare in Love, which comes to a groaning halt when Queen Elizabeth tells the cross-dressing Gwyneth Paltrow in her guise as a male actor, “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
These moments of deliberate ideological anachronism are bad enough; the directorial hyperactivity that has recently characterized movies set in a recognizable historical past may be worse. The desperate fear that the proceedings are going to seem dull causes many a filmmaker to descend into hysterical excess, with cameras swinging about, characters preening and screaming and crying, and crescendos appearing in every bar of the musical score. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven turned millennia-old battles and tussles into versions of the Army’s be-all-that-you-can-be commercials. Shekhar Kapur’s two movies with Cate Blanchett about (again) Elizabeth I seem to confuse the sartorial tastes of 16th-century London with those of 20th-century Bombay.
So why are these costume dramas still getting made? Because sending us into the past is one of the things movies can do better than any other medium; and because the stories they tell are both familiar in outline and unfamiliar in detail, and have stayed alive for centuries for a reason. And because, if they can avoid the traps of anachronism, they can offer adults, in particular, a pretty good time.
Such is the case with the latest costume drama, The Young Victoria, which begins the year before England’s longest-reigning monarch took the throne in 1837 and concludes four years later with the birth of her son, the future Edward VII. The movie is never less than diverting, owing to two very graceful performances: Emily Blunt’s as Victoria and Rupert Friend’s as her first cousin and eventual husband Albert, and a dazzling one by Paul Bettany as the great Whig politician Lord Melbourne (despite the fact that Bettany is 15 years too young for the part and Blunt and Friend far too good-looking for theirs). Though it takes one pretty dramatic liberty with the historical record—having to do with an assassination attempt—The Young Victoria is meticulous about the complexities of her ascent to the throne and the family dramas that accompanied it.
Perhaps too meticulous. The movie, written by the estimable Julian Fellowes, refuses to engage in crass speculation, so it never offers an explanation for the war of wills between Victoria’s widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her brother-in-law, King William IV (Jim Broadbent). He complains that she has kept Victoria from him, which is a little difficult to understand, since the teenaged Victoria loves him and he is the king, after all.
Victoria’s teenage years are characterized by her harsh treatment at the hands of her mother’s secretary, Sir John Conroy; but just why Conroy is permitted to treat the future queen of England so badly is never really fleshed out, even though it was generally believed during their lifetimes that the Duchess and Conroy were lovers. Oddly enough for a movie released in 2009, The Young Victoria draws a Victorian veil over such idle gossip.
The Young Victoria proves surprisingly moving for the same reason that the story of Victoria and Albert has remained a matter of fascination for nearly two centuries—that in the unlikeliest of circumstances, amid emotional conspiracies and political rivalries in which the feelings of the people involved were of almost no moment, two awkward young royals found each other, achieved mutual respect and eventual love, and managed, with a maturity that belied their years, to negotiate private terms for a successful marriage.
And the costumes? To die for.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.