Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Young Victoria

"Her Serene Highness"

William Jefferson Clinton famously called The White House the crown jewel of the U.S. prison system. Young Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) says early on in "The Young Victoria," "Even a palace can be a prison." As the only heir to England's throne in the Royal House of Hanover, the young princess is managed and controlled, ostensibly for her safety, but also for the power that an unprepared and naive queen can offer her advisers. The last image we see before the title of the film is a gate swinging towards us and slamming shut with a bang.

Go to black. Title up.

There are a lot of shuddering doors in "
The Young Victoria," as the upstart princess, well aware of the red carpet ahead, defies her manipulaters and her mother (Miranda Richardson), who is cowed by their presence, especially that of Lord John Conroy (Mark Strong—his second villain role this year after "Sherlock Holmes"—risking typecasting, he'll be playing Sir Godfrey in the upcoming "Robin Hood" ) who viciously seeks to be made regent in case of the death of King William (Jim Broadbent). Ambition is on everyone's mind, except the one who will be getting the power. And ambition is what the young queen must learn, if only to be used as a weapon.

Jean-Marc Vallée (and his script-author Julian Fellowes, who wrote "Gosford Park") spend a lot of time concentrating on Victoria's noggin. It is focussed on, framed and discussed. "Look at that demure little head," says Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) at her coronation. "And all of us wondering what's inside it." He, like the rest of the court, really couldn't care less. If her mind can be changed, then it doesn't matter. But there is enough rebellion, and enough fighting the gold shackles binding her, that can be used to sway her.

It should be noted at this point that one of the producers of "
The Young Victoria" is none other than Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who endured her own time of constraints while married to Prince Andrew. "Fergie" was known to be quite feisty, herself, and one looks at the movie and wonders how much of its editorial stance originated with her, as it is pretty sly in its view of the monarchy as being both a blessing and a curse. Whatever animosities Ferguson has incurred with the current Royal family, there seems to be an understanding of just what is asked of a monarch, and with "The Queen," it shares a similar visual touch—the Royal de-focussing of the eyes that appear to see nothing, but are merely providing a non-commital mask for the public to see, the eyes looking, instead, inward.*

Given that, enter Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) of the Belgians. Groomed as a suitor by his father King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), the young Prince also resents being kept in a can, and upon meeting Victoria goes off-script, showing himself to be of equal mind. During a supervised chess game, they compare notes on their similar circumstances. "I know what it means to live inside your own head," he offers. "You must learn the rules of the game, so you can play it better than they can," and as if we don't get the point, he takes her Queen and sweeps it off the board, captured.

Vallée keeps things properly ornate and unfussy in his direction, save for some odd little rack-focuses interrupting the continual focus on Emily Blunt's head of restrained expression. At one point, though, he does indulge. At the Queen's entrance to a Royal Ball, upon seeing Albert, he keeps Blunt locked in position and then yanks her away from her party, as if pulled, floating to her paramour. A neat little trick that, and very dependent on Blunt keeping her muted expression while having her transport taken completely away. It's indicative of Vallée knowing that his best weapon in the movie is Blunt's subtle whisps of expression; one is drawn to her face to see how she'll react, even if, until the last frame, it is reluctant to reveal.

"The Young Victoria" is a Matinee.

* At the end, there is a title stating that Victoria was the longest reigning British monarch. And as if to tweak the ex-mother-in-law a bit, with a wink, a new title emerges below it—"To date." Elizabeth II is en route to surpass Victoria on September 10, 2015. She'll be 89.

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