02 June 2010

A tale of two dramas

This past weekend I watched The Young Victoria (starring Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend and Paul Bettany) on DVD. Before I begin what promises to be another of my highly-belated movie reviews, I would like to make a couple of warning notes. Firstly, I had previously seen the 2001 BBC miniseries of Victoria & Albert, which deals with many of the same events. Secondly, the last movie adaptation of the subject of a BBC miniseries (in this case, a Jane Austen novel) I found myself loathing with a burning passion – to wit, the 2005 version of Pride & [sic] Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen.

Thankfully for my sanity, The Young Victoria was nothing at all like the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, in that it managed a modicum of respect for its source material and overall proved a soulful and satisfactory film. It also employed Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ in its opening scene, which instantaneously endeared it to me. But it threw me for a definite loop – it was a far different performance again than Victoria & Albert, so in a sense it was like watching the remake of Star Trek: I knew and loved all of the characters, but it was like gazing into an alternate universe where they say and do different things for different reasons. Emily Blunt’s Victoria is far more self-assured, far less visibly vulnerable, far more comfortable growing up and growing into her role as queen than Victoria Hamilton’s Victoria. Rupert Friend’s Albert is a romantic, idealistic individual who despite his introversion quickly befriends and falls in love with his intended, while the source of the growth in Jonathan Firth’s Albert rises from his hard-nosed realism, from his devotion to his duty and from his impatience with the lifestyle he has taken upon himself, only falling in love with Victoria once he has established his own routine. Melbourne as played by Nigel Hawthorne is a gentle, empathetic father-figure to Victoria; Paul Bettany takes ‘Lord M’ and makes him a wryly seductive, cynical, self-interested politico. C F von Stockmar also undergoes a similar transformation: though he was undoubtedly shrewd, calculating and manipulative in the 2001 version, he also provided a lot of paternal advice to the young Albert and cared deeply for the happiness of the young couple once they did marry. In the 2009 version, Stockmar is marked by all of the calculation (plotting the potential political alliance of England with Leopold of Belgium through Albert) and none of the warmth. Instead, Stockmar’s place in the story is taken (with aplomb) by Harriet Walter’s Adelheid von Sachsen-Meiningen, widow of King William IV and friend and mentor to the young Queen Victoria.

I realise, of course, why they did what they did with this movie. From a purely practical standpoint, this film did not have the time or the scope to tackle the entirety of Victoria’s youth, marriage and reign with Albert. Victoria (and certainly Albert!) have a lot more growing up to do in a lot less screen time. It is still unclear to me why they keep Mark Strong’s John Conroy around as long as they did – one of the first things the historical Victoria did upon her ascension to the throne was to summarily dismiss Conroy. And then there is the blatant dramatic licence they took with the Edward Oxford assassination attempt. (Actually, both versions are guilty of historical inaccuracy with regard to this incident, but I confess to liking Jonathan Firth’s cane-fu better than Rupert Friend’s melodramatic bullet dive.)

The characterisation of Lord M, setting him up as the foil and potential romantic rival of Albert, was jarring at first but quite effective. It certainly helped to express the Bedchamber Crisis in convincing dramatic terms, and meshed well with the historical Lord M’s troubled personal life. The opposition of Lord M to Victoria’s desired economic reforms also helps to draw together the characters of Victoria and Albert on one of the central moral points of the story – that the political class have an obligation to care about and act in the interests of the entire nation, particularly the downtrodden and marginalised, even if it comes at the cost of their own comfort and pride. The 2001 version did this too, albeit in more subtle ways (we see it peeking out here and there occasionally), and not by placing Lord M as the primary antagonist.

The rest of the movie was well-done on the whole - if I had to describe this film in one word, that word would doubtless be (to shamelessly borrow the Whedonese vernacular) ‘shiny’. I approved of the music, and I certainly approved of the costume and set design. The effects were also good for the most part, but there was one wince-inducing cinematographic moment where the set slides back from Victoria on the dance floor – after which, I half-expected Michael Jackson to start playing and Albert and the rest of the dance extras to break out Thriller. There were subtle touches which demonstrated the relatable common humanity behind all the royal and political goings-on: Ernst teasing his younger brother over his interest in Victoria, or Queen Adelheid smiling knowingly as Victoria recounts her political and personal struggles to her.

I do regret not having seen this movie on the big screen, but that seems to be a curse I’m under. It’s still very much watchable (and commendable) on DVD.

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