There are certain things we can safely take for granted with a film like The Young Victoria. We know, for instance, that it will be a sumptuously designed production, from its lavish sets to its gorgeous and meticulously reproduced costumes. And with names like Emily Blunt, Jim Broadbent, and Miranda Richardson fleshing out the above-the-line talent list, we can be fairly certain that the performances will be outstanding.
What comes as more of a surprise, though, is how thoroughly entertaining the film is. With the help of their winning cast and top-notch design team, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) have crafted an enthralling, witty, and briskly paced film that transcends its stuffy period trappings to feel remarkably fresh and vibrant. Though they stick close to historical facts (with the notable exception of some creative casting), the filmmakers are more concerned with spinning a captivating tale of back-room political machinations and the passionate first blushes of youthful romance than with assuming the role of history teachers. As the legendary queen herself might say, we are pleased.
When we first meet the film's titular character (portrayed flawlessly by Blunt), she's a youthful princess struggling against the confines that come with being a monarch-in-waiting in the era that will eventually bear her name. It's a suffocating existence for the headstrong young woman; she isn't permitted to sleep in a room without her mother, or to even walk down the stairs unless a bona fide adult holds her hand for the trip. The princess is next in line for the throne, and, judging by the failing health of her wacky uncle King William (Broadbent), she won't have long to wait. The Duchess of Kent (Richardson), Victoria's mother, has other plans, though. At the insistence of her villainous adviser, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), the duchess tries to manipulate Victoria into signing a regency order that will relinquish the powers of the throne to the duchess and, indirectly, to Conroy. Victoria's having none of it, though—in 1837, at the age of only 18, Victoria assumes the throne.
Her mom isn't the only one scheming to manipulate the young queen. Leopold, the King of the Belgians (and also her uncle), seeks to control the throne of England by controlling the woman who occupies it. To that end, he sends his nephew, the dashing young Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), to woo Victoria, hopefully steering her attentions away from the wily prime minister, Lord Melbourne (played by Paul Bettany, who's considerably younger—and slimmer—than the real-life Melbourne was). The romance that eventually blossoms between the two young royals becomes the focus of the second half of the film. To the filmmakers' great credit, their courtship is as captivating as the political chess match that plays out around it.
If it all sounds a bit confusing, it sometimes is. If your British history is rusty, it can be difficult to keep track of the endless rivalries and allegiances that shape England's future and the first chunk of The Young Victoria. It's not much of a problem, though, since the film soon narrows its focus to a handful of men and women with a vested interest in the queen's decisions. The initial confusion gives way to riveting intrigue set against the backdrop of a changing empire.
As good as The Young Victoria is, though, it's never quite as good as its star. Blunt assumes the role of Queen Victoria so completely and effortlessly that it's difficult to reconcile her dewy but headstrong young monarch with the contemporary roles that put Blunt on Hollywood's radar. Having made a name for herself as a supporting actress in films like The Devil Wears Prada and Sunshine Cleaning, she finally proves beyond any doubt that she is entirely capable of carrying a movie.
So Victoria is entertaining, captivating and downright charming. What it isn't, though, is objective, nor particularly insightful. Produced by Fergie herself (the Duchess of York, not the Black Eyed Pea), the film isn't concerned with offering any revelations about of one of modern history's most influential women. Royalists will be pleased with the film's reverential take on its subject, but anyone hoping for an objective portrait of Victoria will be left wanting.
For better or worse, dramas about the British royal family have become a genre unto themselves. Even if that's not your cup of Earl Grey, it's nearly impossible to not be caught up in the considerable charms of The Young Victoria.