Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE YOUNG VICTORIA: First Impressions

God Save Paul Bettany, Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, Harriet Walter, and the host of stellar character actors who populate "The Young Victoria," a sumptuously filmed Hollywood-ization of the late teenage years of Victoria Regina.

It's a welcome costume drama, if an imperfect one. In the interest of giving our royal heroine some adversaries the filmmakers created them where they did not historically exist, thereby depriving theatregoers of the pleasure of enjoying the way the real courtship between Victoria and Albert unfolded.

What is missing is the breathless passion that the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria felt for her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Where is the girl who wrote in her diary about the tight white trousers Albert wore when they watched a parade review, intimating that she could scarcely tear her gaze from his manly attributes? Sounds like the stuff of a maudlin romance novel -- but it's fact. She was head over heels in lust with him by that point; I wish we'd seen that bubbling beneath the surface of Emily Blunt's cousinly cordiality.

Did we really need the stereotypical villains handed to us by the screenplay, since we've got three of them, not counting Victoria's mother? However, they do deserve kudos for making Sir John Conroy, Victoria's mother's comptroller (in every way) as nasty as he surely was (he even aims a kick at Victoria's dog, Dash -- played to heartwarming perfection by a Tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel).

But we're given two additional screen baddies who in real life were Victoria's champions during the period covered by the film -- her ascendancy to the throne and her courtship with Prince Albert. The fact that Victoria and Albert were cousins is glossed over, possibly because of its "ick factor" to 21st century audiences, although intermarriage was more the rule than the exception for the royal houses of Europe.

I am always disappointed by the unnecessary revising of history when the real story is just as (if not more) delicious and fraught with tensions as the cinematic one. For example, King Leopold of the Belgians was in fact very much a long-distance father-figure to Victoria, and not at all the self-interested Machiavellian we have in the movie. Yes, he was the one who first proposed the idea of a match between Victoria and Albert, but he was a pragmatic and avuncular advisor who very much cared for her interests. And she looked up to him for guidance and advice.

Also falling into that category in real life was William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, Victoria's first prime minister and mentor, another father figure. Paul Bettany can do little wrong in my eyes (never have I seen him in a film where he doesn't burn up the screen with his intensity. And it could be my vintage that is responsible for my vantage here, but in my view, sexuality comes off the man in waves). Consequently, he seems far too young and sexy to play Lord Melbourne (who was 58 when Victoria ascended the throne). And yet, odd casting choice aside, when Bettany's onscreen it's impossible to watch anyone else.

But the filmmakers were cognizant enough of Bettany's sex appeal to use it as a foil for Rupert Friend's Prince Albert. True, Melbourne attempted to discourage Victoria from marrying her Coburg cousin for political reasons -- but almost as soon as she became queen, he did urge her to find a husband, and to do so without delay, the opposite position taken from his cinematic counterpart. Melbourne, as written for Mr. Bettany, consistently encourages her to delay any considerations of marriage and seems to wish he could bed Victoria himself. True, the real Melbourne was a flirt, but we're talking about the lively banter between a girl of 18 or 19 and a man pushing 60. The actors in "The Young Victoria," -- Bettany, and (the rather tall and thin for Victoria) Emily Blunt -- look far too much like contemporaries (Bettany is currently 38 years old) for the proper dynamic to be believable.

Throughout the film, I missed the real Victoria who was so full of bouncy ebullience and exuberance that her conduct made Albert nervous. At the outset, he was unsure that a bubbly wife who loved late nights and balls would suit his temperament. That Victoria is not the character the movie makers have given us. Perhaps they thought they had done so, but whether it's due to the screenplay, the direction, the casting, or a combination of all of those factors, it's not there.

Still, there is much to enjoy about the film. It is gorgeous to look at and the supporting cast is particularly strong. The creators were true to the way certain events (and even stretches of dialogue) unfolded, and for that they merit applause. I just wish they'd trusted history a bit more, and not felt compelled to invent situations for purely dramatic reasons; truth being stranger than fiction, more often than not the actual events were far more exciting than anything concocted by a screenwriter.

For those interested in the story of the real courtship of Victoria and Albert and in the actual personality of the young Victoria, here are a few paragraphs from my nonfiction book, NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, to be released on January 5.

When she was six days shy of her seventeenth birthday, on May 18, 1836, Victoria, not yet queen of England, had the opportunity to meet her two Coburg cousins, Ernest and his younger brother Albert.

Victoria’s immediate reaction to her sixteen-year-old cousin was overwhelmingly positive. According to her diary entry, “. . . Albert, who is just as tall as Ernest but stouter, is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same color as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful; c’est à la fois [it’s at the same time] full of goodness and sweetness, and very clever and intelligent.”

However, Albert privately nursed some reservations regarding Victoria’s suitability as a future spouse. Ebullient and vivacious, she enjoyed late nights and parties and also delighted in the trivialities and fripperies of court life and etiquette. He’d also heard she was stubborn and that she was not terribly fond of Nature, which was one of his passions. True, insects—as well as turtle soup, and Tories—were among three of her pet peeves.

At least the cousins possessed similar senses of humor, favoring the sort of practical joke that would make a vaudevillian proud over the brisk intellectual quip or display of wit.

The visit progressed swimmingly. On June 7, Victoria wrote to Leopold with her characteristic effusiveness, “I must thank you, my beloved Uncle, for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to give me, in the person of dear Albert. Allow me . . . to tell you how delighted I am with him, and how much I like him in every way. He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable, too. He has besides, the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see.”

The Coburg cousins returned to Germany, but the stage had been set for a genuine love match, that rarest of occurrences in the history of royal marriages.

Oh, how I wish this Victoria, the girl of the "characteristic effusiveness," had been the woman we saw in the film:

An honest physical appraisal of the young queen was offered by the wife of Andrew Stevenson, the American Minister in London, who had been one of Victoria’s dinner guests during the first year of her reign. The British ruler stood about five feet tall and was a bit plump, with the bulging blue eyes and protuberant chin of the Hanovers. “Her bust, like most English women’s, is very good, hands and feet are small and very pretty . . . her mouth, which is her worst feature, is generally a little open; her teeth small and short, and she shows her gums when she laughs, which is rather disfiguring.” Mrs. Stevenson did find Her Majesty’s laugh to be “particularly delightful,” however, “so full of girlish glee and gladness.” Others described Victoria’s smile as enchanting and her voice as melodious.

Thomas Creevey, who dined in the teenage queen’s company at the Brighton Pavilion in October 1837 had much to say about her gustatory habits. “She eats quite as heartily as she laughs, I think I may say she gobbles . . . She blushes and laughs every instant in so natural a way as to disarm anybody.”

Have you seen "The Young Victoria"? What are your thoughts on the film and on the way it portrayed Victoria's various relationships?


dolleygurl said...

I haven't seen the movie yet (mostly because it isn't out anywhere around me). It looks beautiful - the still shots and trailers are just gorgeous. I hate it when movie makers take what was so dramatic in history and change it because they think it will be a better story. Sometimes they are just wrong. But I still can't wait to see it, thanks for the heads up.

Leslie Carroll said...

Heather, it is definitely a gorgeous movie ... and yet something is off with it.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I want to see the movie, but was very interested to get your take on it. I had no idea about the true young Victoria or the passion she harbored for Albert. I'm looking forward to the book release!

BTW... have you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I inhaled it. It was a bit pat and tied things up rather too nicely, but it was such fun. It's been a hard December, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Leslie Carroll said...

Jen, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the film. No, I haven't read "Guernsey...etc." I'm intrigued by it, though.

Meanwhile ... hang in there!

Eliza Knight said...

Excellent post Leslie! You are so comprehensive! I see that you have another book coming out this month! I loved Royal Affairs and had no idea about your newest book! Do you have a newsletter? I need to sign up!

Leslie Carroll said...

Eliza, send me your snail mail and email address through my website and I'll be sure to add you!!

Because you loved ROYAL AFFAIRS I think you'll also love NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES.

Lauren said...

I am going to see this on Wednesday and I cant believe:

"What is missing is the breathless passion that the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria felt for her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha."

How could they leave such details out?? hmm.... Well I still have high hopes!

Leslie Carroll said...

Lauren, I definitely want to know what you think. I found the film gorgeous to look at, but there was something missing for me in the casting, chemistry, etc. I wanted to see an organic ebullience in the portrayal of Victoria and instead I got a historically re-created one and I just didn't believe it.