The Young Victoria
“What young girl doesn’t dream of being a princess?” asks Queen Victoria in a voice-over from the British period drama The Young Victoria. Surely there must be some, but for the past decade the other sort have been lining up at toy stores and movie theaters with cash in hand. Back in 2000 the Walt Disney Company’s consumer products division struck gold when it launched the Disney Princess franchise, packaging classic characters from the studio’s animated films into an array of dolls, games, and other products; sales for this year alone are projected at $4 billion. Disney’s The Princess Diaries (2001) and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), with Anne Hathaway as a middle-class teen who discovers she’s heir to the throne of a small European country, grossed $300 million worldwide, and its live-action comedy Enchanted (2007), which gently poked fun at the studio’s princess mythology, made $340 million. The studio’s latest animation, The Princess and the Frog, just grossed $25 million in its opening weekend.
Curiously, the princess craze parallels a trend for grown-up movies about female royalty—dramas that focus less on tiaras and gowns than on the complex problems of women wielding power in a man’s world. Cate Blanchett vaulted into the top rank of stars with her flinty performance as Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) and repeated the role in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). Helen Mirren won a boatload of awards (including an Oscar for best actress) playing the politically compromised Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’s The Queen (2006). One of the better costume dramas last year was The Duchess, with Keira Knightley as the put-upon Georgiana Spencer, an 18th-century ancestor of Princess Di. And now Emily Blunt has taken on Britain’s longest-reigning monarch in The Young Victoria, which, more pointedly than any of its predecessors, ponders the postfeminist dilemma of how to find happiness in both love and work.
Victoria seems rather an odd choice as a feminist heroine, given that her name became synonymous with sexual conservatism and rigid gender codes. She arranged marriages for all four of her daughters, telling one that a bride was “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” After her husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861, she mourned him for the next 40 years, living in seclusion, wearing black every day, and having servants lay out her dead husband’s clothes each morning. But screenwriter Julian Fellowes, best known for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), clearly sees Victoria as a worthwhile role model for young women. The movie follows her through a series of conflicts with powerful men—her mother’s comptroller, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong); her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany); and finally Albert (Rupert Friend)—as she learns the art of politics and gradually gains control of her own fate.
With its PG rating, the movie is perfectly appropriate for girls, and its opening scenes play like a more intelligent and historically grounded version of their G-rated princess dramas. But in this case, being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As the only legitimate grandchild of George III, Victoria is next in line to the throne after her ailing uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), yet her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), conspires with Conroy to keep Victoria a virtual prisoner in Kensington Palace. According to their “Kensington System,” Victoria is prohibited from reading popular books or playing with other children; she must sleep in the same room with her mother every night and take the hand of an adult whenever she goes downstairs. As she approaches her 18th birthday, Conroy becomes ever more insistent that Victoria sign an order of regency and hand over any future monarchical powers to her mother (and, by implication, to him).
Short-tempered and mean, Conroy could pass for a heavy in The Princess Diaries, and one might be inclined to cheer when Victoria, on attaining maturity and, three weeks later, the throne, turns the tables on Conroy, banning him and her mother to a remote corner of the palace. But this isn’t a kiddie movie: when Victoria becomes queen, she inherits a more adult set of problems and discovers that her freedom is still limited, only in more subtle ways. Fellowes, who moonlights as a speechwriter for Tory politicians, has imbued The Young Victoria with a fairly sophisticated understanding of constitutional monarchy, and the queen’s tactical victories are always tempered by the reality that her power is largely ceremonial. The script is also cleverly structured so that each of Victoria’s male antagonists is dearer to her than the last and, as a result, more difficult to handle. In the end The Young Victoria is a story not of regal triumphs but of grown-up compromises and accommodations.
This becomes particularly evident in Victoria’s warm relationship with Lord Melbourne, a Whig who was elected prime minister under William IV. While still under her mother’s thumb, the princess executes a deft flanking maneuver by choosing Melbourne as her private secretary. But once she’s ascended to the throne, Melbourne becomes a rather patronizing figure, brushing off her suggestions that they collaborate to help the poor. (“Never try to do good, Your Majesty,” he advises her with genial cynicism.) In fact, Victoria’s loyalty to Melbourne, combined with her political naivete, brings on her first crisis as queen: when Melbourne is defeated by Tory politician Sir Robert Peel, Victoria ignores the custom of replacing her Whig ladies-in-waiting with Tory women, and Peel resigns, returning Melbourne to office. The “Bedchamber Crisis” brings an angry mob to the gates of the palace; at the opera, Victoria is stung when an unseen wag calls out “Mrs. Melbourne,” prompting titters from the crowd.
Victoria’s greatest ally through all this is Albert, son of a German noble family and her first cousin. Their common uncle, Leopold I of Belgium, is eager to forge a political marriage between the two houses, and though Victoria initially finds the awkward young man more amusing then alluring, Albert eventually wins her over with his idealism and ardor. From the start, their relationship is bound up in the exercise of power. As they play chess together—carefully monitored by Leopold, Conroy, and the duchess—Victoria asks Albert, “Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself, in a game being played against your will?” When Albert advises her to master the game herself, Victoria asks, “You don’t recommend I find a husband to play it for me?” Fixing her with a stare, Albert replies, “I should find one to play it with you, not for you.”
This implicit offer of partnership carries through their wedding, though afterward The Young Victoria takes a decidedly modern turn as Albert, like Melbourne and Conroy before him, tries to pry the reins away from his bride. Determined to be his own man, Albert coldly rebuffs Melbourne’s friendly political advice, infuriates Leopold with a letter distancing himself from the continent, and pressures Victoria to let him run her household and office. The sticking point between them comes when they meet with Sir John Peel, again standing election for prime minister, and Albert assures him that, should he win, Victoria will reverse her earlier decision and appoint Tory wives as her ladies in waiting. “How dare you talk across me, as if I was a child!” Victoria exclaims once she and Albert are alone. Fellowes manages to rescue his love story with a climax that’s partly invented (and that I won’t spoil here). But the movie’s other story line isn’t so easily resolved: for Victoria and for generations of women since, being a princess isn’t nearly as rewarding as being an equal.
Find this review and many more at chicagoreader.com/movies.