When a friend of mine suggested The Young Victoria (2009), I was initially apprehensive. If you have been keeping score at home, you know that usually I am critical of historically based films. I like to watch them, but rarely do they seem to satisfy my knowledge of such events. But I keep coming back for more because, as a lover of the past, I enjoy seeing a window into a time immemorial. There is nothing like a visual medium for time traveling, and few are able to do it as well as this film’s writer, Julian Fellowes. However, I did not know he was attached to this production until I saw his name in the credits at the end. Suddenly knowing that the author of one of my favorite shows and a movie of all time, Downton Abbey, was behind this made the whole experience a little better.
When you think about Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt), if you think about her at all, one of the first things that probably comes to mind is the centuries spanning age that bears her name. The Victorian Age conjures stereotypes of prudishness, “traditional” family values, and men and women wearing an amount of clothing that made fashion deadly in the summer. As for the person who gave rise to this period, we tend to see her as this stern, frumpy person whose visage oversaw an empire famously upon which the sun never set in the nineteenth century. It is almost as if she launched into history fully formed about 1850. The Young Victoria, as the title might suggest, focuses on a different time in the famous queen’s life, one that shows a young woman coming of age with the typical streak of defiance you might expect from any late teenager. To get at this, and because Fellowes wrote it, a bit of historical knowledge is in order. The Hanoverian family that ruled England from the early eighteenth century up until Victoria came to power in 1837 were known for bringing a great deal of success to the British Empire. They were also a pack of lunatics, particularly George III (1760-1820). Partially due to the family’s renowned madness there was a dearth of suitable heirs, making the seemingly sensible heiress Victoria of vital importance. The current king, William IV (Jim Broadbent), is seen as being close to death, and thus the pressure on what Victoria’s reign would be like mounted, and this is where the film begins. There are several parties vying for her attention. First and foremost is her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her companion Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who desire to have them made her regents as they feel she is too young to rule. A regency is basically a person who governs in the place of another, usually when the rightful claimant to the throne is not of age. Luckily this has never gone wrong throughout history. That was a joke, by the way. There are forces in England and without that do not favor such a situation, namely Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who hopes to influence the queen-to-be to further his own political agenda. Another factor is her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), who seeks to pair the emerging woman with the right suitor. Every aspect of Victoria’s life, but public and private, is being picked over by others just at a time when most young adults are becoming the people they are destined to be. She cannot even walk up and down stairs on her own. Entering this atmosphere of intrigue is the man that King Leopold hopes Victoria will marry, the handsome prince of the German principality Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Albert (Rupert Friend), no relation. Victoria and Albert hit it off from the start, and one of the things that attracts her to him is that he is not asking anything of her. Instead, he supports her desire to become the kind of monarch she wishes to be, which is what wins her over. Thus when she is crowned, she shortly thereafter chooses him as her husband. Things are not all rosy, though. Because Victoria is desirous of asserting her authority, it leaves Albert with little to do. As such, he feels like his talents are going unused and unwanted, which is hard for him to take as he thought Victoria chose him for what he could bring to their family and his adopted country. When he goes behind her back to try and get a housing scheme put together, she is none to pleased, and it puts a strain on their marriage early on. Yet he remains dedicated to her, stopping an assassin’s bullet by throwing himself in front of her. It is a chivalrous act, and they remain devoted to each other from then on.
The Young Victoria ends shortly after this bit of heroism. Unfortunately, Albert died young, in 1860, at the age of forty-two. Victoria would go on to rule for another forty-one years, but never forgot her dear husband, wearing black for the rest of her life. Her long period of mourning, though, is not the subject of this film. Instead, the makers wanted to show a young, powerful woman learning to wield her royal privileges. It is important to note that she did not become a despot, though the day of absolute rulers in Europe had ended by the time she became queen. Instead, she learned to give to her country an example of a happy couple, and later family, a model that was to be copied in the West in her day and for decades to follow. Now, I am not necessarily advocating a return to Victorian values. Unlike what the film would suggest, that period in our history became a time when women were supposed to be subservient to men. That is not a concept that is backed up by scripture. People make too much of the passages that talk about how women should be subservient to men, forgetting that it also says, practically in the same breath, that men should love women as themselves. What trumps it all is that we are supposed to see Christ in each other, and treat each other accordingly. We are called to serve Christ, and that is at the heart of the word “subservient,” but it is meant to be a mutual service. The strongest relationships I have seen are the ones that do this, and this described Victoria and Albert.
If historical dramas are not your thing, then The Young Victoria then you might want to skip this one. But it does speak to a very different Victoria than the one that conjures all those stereotypes discussed earlier. I suspect this film was pitched to complicate our picture of traditional womanhood, much of which is based on Victoria herself. Such revisionism usually annoys the crap out of me. Still, I think it is important to humanize such marbled historical figures, and this film does that nicely.