The Breeding of an Empire

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Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was cer- tainly a figure of major historical interest. She reigned for nearly 64 years, longer than any other British monarch, or any female monarch anywhere. During her reign, Britain reached the height of its economic, military, and political power, with its empire spanning the globe. But in the beginning Victoria was simply a sheltered teenager who needed to learn how to rule.

“The Young Victoria” focuses on the period from Victoria’s late teenage years through her marriage. The his- tory is accurately portrayed, especially her various struggles with those around her who wanted to control her, and her relationship with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg whom she met when she was 17, one of many suitors being put for- ward as a potential political match.

The acting is very well done across the board. Most remarkable is Emily Blunt’s performance as the adult Victoria (Michaela Brooks and Grace Smith play Victoria at ages 11 and 5, respectively). Blunt’s previous films have been fairly lightweight, so it was surprising to see what she can do when given a meatier role. She plays Victoria as a young woman who knows early on that she is destined to be queen, and has the intelligence and fierce independence of will to do it her way.

The film opens with the controversy over what to do if King William IV (Jim Broadbent) dies before Princess Victoria, the only surviving legitimate heir, reaches the age of 18. Parliament has already passed a Regency Act under which her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), would act as Regent, but the act doesn’t spell out limitations on the regent’s powers. The duchess and her comptroller, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), want Victoria to sign over additional powers that would extend beyond her 18th birthday, and Victoria resists vigorously.

Life as a princess isn’t all fun and games. In fact, it’s no fun and games at all. Victoria is raised under the “Kensington system,” a restrictive environment in which she is not allowed to play with other children, has to be escorted up and down stairs to pre- vent falls, and has to sleep with her mother. The goal of this is not merely to protect Victoria, but to keep her weak and under the control of the duchess and Conroy (widely assumed to be the duchess’ lover). As a feisty teenager, Victoria fights this attempt at domination, refusing to let Conroy become her personal secretary.

As it turns out, no regent is needed. Motivated, perhaps, by his strong dis- like for Victoria’s mother and his con- cern that she might become regent, King William manages to hang on, dying one month after Victoria’s 18th birthday. Victoria becomes queen and is crowned, after which she moves her mother and Conroy to a remote part of the palace. She declares her sovereignty by walking up and down stairs unaccompanied by a protective escort.

The political machinations of court life are well portrayed in the film. Although Victoria is strong-willed, she allows herself to be advised (some would say manipulated) by the Whig prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). Melbourne selects all of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting from among the wives and daughters of his Whig supporters, ignoring the tradition of including ladies from both parties. He directs her correspondence, tells her whom to trust, and gently controls the court. When Melbourne is replaced by the Tory Sir Robert Peel, Victoria refuses to change her ladies-in-waiting to reflect the new party in power, arguing simply, “I am the queen. 1 will choose whom I want.” She had spent too many years under the Kensington system to let others tell her what to do.

She quickly learns, however, that a queen rules at the will of the people. When she continues to flaunt her friend- ship with Melbourne after the Tories come to power, public opinion turns against her. She wisely backs down.

Against this political backdrop is a lovely story of the romance between Victoria and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Initially Albert is sent by his ambitious Uncle Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) to woo his young cousin to maintain favorable relations between England and Belgium. Albert is coached in how to impress Victoria, but she has seen it all before with a long line of suit- ors, and she teases him mercilessly. The scenes between the two are charming, and reveal a genuine love story that transcends political expediency.

Albert is not just a loving husband; he rapidly becomes Victoria’s main adviser, eventually displacing Melbourne. He also convinces her to remove Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s governess, from running the household; it is time for Victoria to grow up and transfer her loyalty to her husband.

Victoria and Albert remained devoted to each other until his death in 1861. They had nine children, a brood that married into royal houses all over the continent, so that she became known as “the grandmother of Europe.” There were periods when her popularity waned, but she was through most of her reign a highly popular monarch, not least because she lived a life of propriety and dignity. This film demonstrates a more playful side of the queen after whom the phrase “Victorian morality” is named.

As an historical piece, “The Young Victoria” is informative – with some exceptions, such as the disconcerting substitution of Blenheim Palace for Buckingham Palace – and as a period drama, it is first-rate. The cinematography is beautifully done. Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction moves the film along at a reasonable pace, while portray- ing the most important historical back- ground in full detail.

This is altogether an enjoyable film, well worth viewing.

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