Thursday, December 24, 2009

Drama queen

Portrait of a new queen eschews history for sweetness

Posted on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 at 4:00 AM

****
The Young Victoria
Studio: Apparition
Rated: PG
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
WorkNameSort: Young Victoria, The
Our Rating: 4.00

Legal reforms, cross-continental politics, civil unrest ' The Young Victoria hardly has time for any of that nonsense, and frankly, why should it? When your lead, the woman who must hold the screen in every scene, is as luminous as Emily Blunt (here playing the titular Queen), you want her to do the following in quick order: fall in love, fall into bed, stay in bed.

I don't mean to be sexist here. I know that powerful women like Victoria, and the Elizabeths before and after her, can be captivating in their regal duties, but that's not why director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Vanity Fair) chose as their subject the young Victoria. Thankfully, they're well aware of the task at hand and execute it beautifully.

The film kicks up at the end of Victoria's 17th year, a particularly crucial one, in fact. If King William (played, as ever, with endearing bigness by Jim Broadbent) croaks before she turns 18, then a regency could be set up that leaves her evil stepfather, Sir John Conroy, and her enabling mother in charge. (This is all hilariously spelled out with title cards containing information that is immediately spoken once the scene begins.)

The old king makes it ' just ' and Victoria ascends to the throne, kicking Conroy and her mother to the curb and turning her complete trust (and, scandalously, parts of the government) over to Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). She knows well enough, however, not to sleep with Melbourne despite his come-hither stares, and takes up with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

It's this romance that takes up the bulk of the remaining movie, and although Victoria's politics take a backseat (or, rather, are thrown off the bus), The Young Victoria coasts on the effervescence of Blunt and Friend and their royal love affair. This is precisely what that other costume drama of this year (Bright Star) was missing: romance. A miniseries or cable TV show can take the kind of time needed to nail the details and intricately demonstrate period politics, but a two-hour movie needs to sweep audiences off their feet, to envelop them in breathless, even silly, love.

To this end, Emily Blunt is remarkable, her sleepy eyes (true to photographs of Queen Victoria) compensated by a vibrant physicality and the sense that something's going on behind her gaze, a rare and valuable quality in actors. Rupert Friend's soft features are put to riotous use, especially when the 'househusbandâ?� syndrome kicks in shortly after their marriage. And Bettany, in a part he could do in his sleep, delivers strength and poignance.

These are surface judgments, of course, but it's refreshing to see a film so content with surface-level deliciousness.

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