Review: The Young Victoria

Emily Blunt gives a commanding performance as the 19th-century British queen.

Emily Blunt gives a commanding performance as the 19th-century British queen

Emily Blunt plays Britain's iconic 19th-century queen in director Jean-Marc Vallee's film The Young Victoria. ((Alliance Films))

Who could have guessed that director Jean-Marc Vallée would follow up his vibrant, glam-rockin' debut, C.R.A.Z.Y., with a subdued historical drama? Or that his sophomore effort would be produced by the unlikely duo of Martin Scorsese and the Duchess of York? Given all of the personalities involved, it's not surprising there are moments where The Young Victoria feels a bit confused. It's a slow burn of a movie and, much like the titular monarch, it takes a while before it comes into its own.

One thing is clear from the outset: the Victoria embodied here by Emily Blunt is not the dour, bulldog-mugged Queen we've come to know from history textbooks. This teenager, with her pink cheeks and rose-petal lips, is lively and rebellious, perhaps on account of the oppressive Kensington System upbringing she describes in the film's opening voiceover. Remarking that "even a palace can be a prison" and describing how her every activity – from a walk down the palace staircase to the tasting of a meal – is monitored by governesses and her controlling mother. The girl has everything, yet seldom bothers to leave the confines of her room.

Her feelings of isolation are well founded. The early stages of The Young Victoria are set in 1837, when all of the film's characters are trying to manipulate the girl who will soon become Queen. Sensing that King William IV (the delightfully crusty Jim Broadbent) is not long for this world, Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), pressures the girl to sign a regency order that would allow a parent to rule in the place of an under-aged child. The Duchess's attendant, John Conroy, and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (a scene-stealing Paul Bettany) are also scheming on the sidelines, each angling to find a way to influence the young woman. But Victoria isn't having any of it – she throws the regency papers in Conroy's face and vows revenge on her mother if she ever ascends to the throne.

One additional interloper makes a lasting impression. Egged on by his uncle Leopold, Albert (Rupert Friend) visits his cousin Victoria in an attempt to woo her for political reasons. After cramming for the date like it's a midterm, Albert all but bungles the meeting, until he ditches the prepared script and expresses a fondness for the composer Schubert. Albert's motives aren't entirely pure, but there's something refreshingly real about him. As the two trade witticisms during a game of chess, a faint smirk on Victoria's face suggests she's met the one person who gets the loneliness and insecurity that's roiling inside her.

All these complex machinations and family trees are mapped out within the first half hour of the movie. Less fleet-footed here than when he was manoeuvring through the class systems in Gosford Park, screenwriter Julian Fellowes is able to present a lot of key historical details — but they feel presented, like items checked off on Queen Victoria's Wikipedia page. Some of it is confusing, and it bogs the movie down. Viewers might wonder when something more rousing than a behind-closed-door conversation is going to take place.

Just when you're about ready for a catnap, Victoria comes to power, and you can practically feel Vallée breathing easier now that the exposition is more or less out of the way. When the Queen trades in her dark, suffocating Kensington bedroom for eye-popping new digs at Buckingham Palace, The Young Victoria switches gears, becoming a far more modern movie than its opening scenes and tasteful, Merchant-Ivory-approved poster suggest.

As the camera glides over the ornate ceilings and meticulously pruned hedge gardens that now surround Victoria, it's hard not to think of Sophia Coppola's equally lush take on a teen queen, Marie Antoinette. Like Antoinette, Victoria's youth makes her ill equipped to rule. She makes impetuous decisions and questionable allegiances – notably leaning on Lord Melbourne for advice until she risks tarnishing her reputation and crown. But where Coppola's Antoinette buried her inadequacies under fancy frocks and trays of puff pastry, Victoria is too stubborn for that – she'll dry her tears and keep trying until she disproves every detractor that called her a "china doll."

Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt, left) romances Albert (Rupert Friend) in Young Victoria. ((Alliance Films) )

She blossoms into a far more confident leader and woman, helped along the way by Albert, whose love letters should induce swooning in many a female viewer. Espousing undying faith in Victoria's smarts and encouraging her to make mistakes, Albert possesses deep wells of metrosexual sensitivity, and proves that he means business when he claims Victoria needs a man to rule with, not for, her. The bulk of The Young Victoria is devoted to charting the courtship of these well-matched lovers, and their modern romance and palpable chemistry save the movie from fully succumbing to stuffy costume-drama dullsville.

Blunt is impressive throughout, registering a wide range of emotional shifts with great delicacy. One minute, she's a flirty teen mugging for Albert at a dance, the next she's a powerhouse, reminding everyone that she wears the crown. Whether Victoria's being bratty, needy or assertive, Blunt always feels authentic, and the film gives her a chance to stretch in ways that mirror her character's development. Blunt begins The Young Victoria as a promising ingénue, but by film's end, she's in another place entirely – her assured performance suggests a woman who is finally ready to lead.

Young Victoria opens Dec. 18.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.