Over the centuries, Queen Victoria has become as much a fixed image as a flesh-and-blood historical figure. Stern, stout, and unyielding, she’s been transformed into a stand-in for everything repressive and staid in 19th-century Britain. Though at heart a perfectly polite costume drama, The Young Victoria gets a minor charge simply by portraying Victoria in the years leading up to and after her coronation at the age of 18. Winningly played by the anything-but-stern Emily Blunt, Victoria is presented as a bright, vivacious, willful, and sometimes rash monarch-in-the-making who took the reins away from those who expected to hold them for her.
The film around her performance is never so commanding, but as a colorful, only mildly juiced-up history lesson, it’s effective enough. Director Jean-Marc Vallée bathes the frames in the details of its luxurious surroundings, and the screenplay, by Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes, does a passable job of laying out all the factions jockeying for power around Blunt’s Victoria. The film lays on its politics-as-chess-game metaphor a little thick, however, and its refusal to leave the corridors of power to see the impact of its developments on the country at large makes it feel stuffy after a while.
Maybe that’s why—in spite of nice work by Miranda Richardson as the Victoria’s mother, and Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, whose mentorship carries a hint of self-interest—The Young Victoria is at its liveliest when focusing on the romance between its heroine and her cousin Albert Of Saxe-Coburg And Gotha (Rupert Friend), which—here at least—begins as an attempt at power consolidation and blooms into true love. Blunt and Friend generate an impressive amount of sexual tension via courtly letters and chaperoned conversations. Even under constricted circumstances, and in the middle of constricted movies, hearts can’t hide their passions.