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The Young Victoria

The Royal Treatment

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Nothing says Oscar bait like a prestige historical drama released in December, just in time for yearend best-of lists, critics’ awards, and nominations for industry awards.

Case in point, The Young Victoria, a historical drama/romance directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes (Vanity Fair, Piccadilly Jim, Gosford Park) and starring Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning, The Jane Austen Book Club, The Devil Wears Prada) as the young Victoria of the title. Elevated by Blunt’s nuanced, layered performance and, as expected, fine, sometimes even sumptuous eye candy (it’s all in the period details), The Young Victoria is, if not award-worthy, then certainly worth seeing on the big or small screen.

The Young Victoria follows Victoria, the17-year-old heir to the British throne, as she engages in a power struggle with her mother, Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her mother’s personal secretary, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Both her mother and Conroy want Victoria to sign over her royal powers until her 25th birthday. Her ailing uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), hopes to live long enough for Victoria to ascend the throne on her own. Her 18th birthday and her uncle’s death happen almost simultaneously. Now a queen, but inexperienced in politics, Victoria turns to the current Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), for friendship and mentorship.

As queen, Victoria, of course, is expected to marry and have children. Another uncle, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), hopes she’ll marry his nephew, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), solidifying a political alliance between England and Belgium. Initially hesitant about Albert and his intentions — an arranged marriage holds little appeal — Victoria eventually warms to him.

Albert offers her the companionship and romantic love necessary to become an effective ruler. But as a romantic relationship with Albert blossoms, Victoria encounters problems with a new prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney), growing public dissatisfaction with her continued support of Lord Melbourne, and jealousy between Albert and Lord Melbourne.

Not surprisingly, there’s little drama or conflict in Victoria’s maturation as queen — she ruled for 63 years, after all, and remains the longest serving monarch in Europe — but Vallée, working from Fellowes’ deft screenplay, manages to create tension and suspense, if not in the result, then in how Victoria became the Victoria known from the history books. Fellowes weaves the political machinations in Victoria’s household, those in Parliament, King Leopold, and the romance between Victoria and Albert.

The Young Victoria only loses momentum in the third act when, with conflicts resolved and Victoria and Albert married, Vallée and Fellowes explore superficial conflicts in their relationship.

Just as unsurprisingly, a character-based historical drama depends on the talent and charisma of the actor or actress playing the historical figure, and in Emily Blunt (far more attractive and glamorous than the real Victoria), Vallée found the perfect actress. Unhindered by the need to imitate the historical Victoria, Blunt was relatively free to make Queen Victoria her own. Her Victoria is smart, articulate, thoughtful, mindful of her privileged status and her role as ruler, but also stubborn and temperamental, a passionate individual contrary to Victoria’s reputation as the stoic, unemotional ruler of the British Empire and the “Victoria” in “Victorian morality.”