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September 21st 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

The Young (and the Restless) Victoria

Apparently Martin Scorsese had something to do with this film; I find that hard to believe. I do, however, find it very easy to believe that Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, had plenty to do with it.

I got quite excited about the idea of this movie. I have long been a fan of Cecil Woodham Smith’s excellent biography of Victoria’s life up to the Prince Consort’s death in 1861, so I was pretty much a full bottle on the whole Conroy affair and the Kensington system. Admittedly, the trailers were disconcerting – there seemed to have been a hearty dollop of soap opera added into this already-fascinating love affair – but when I saw the film in its entirety, some of it made my heart sink. 

For one thing, it’s trying to do an awful lot at once. Victoria’s early life was incredibly action-packed, and the film does manage to convey (albeit heavy-handedly) that there were a lot of people trying to push her around and control her. Victoria, played by Emily Blunt, is far too pretty for the real thing, but is curiously a dead ringer for Victoria’s half-sister Feodora (imagine youthful photos of Princess Margaret). The real Victoria was no beauty, even in her dewy youth; she had a beaky nose, no chin, chubby cheeks, and the Hanoverian tendency to avoirdupois. Rupert Friend, though, as Albert, is beautiful, just like the real thing. 

Jim Broadbent is a delight as William IV: it must be tempting for a lazy actor to present him as 100% buffoon, when actually William was shrewdly aware of the power games being played around him. Broadbent has the intelligence to give this tiny role considerable depth, and it shines. Paul Bettany on the other hand, as Lord Melbourne, has the worst set of grey streaks I’ve ever seen in a film, and he lacks the gravitas and avuncular charm of the real Melbourne, coming across instead as a rather obvious letch. 

The other cameos are a hoot: Julian Glover as the Duke of Wellington strides into a ballroom and does a sharp about-face in front of the camera so we can get the full benefit of his costume nose; Harriet Walter is a splendid Queen Adelaide mit ein cut-glass German accent; and Michael Maloney, an actor who I normally can’t stand, is actually a very dignified and restrained Sir John Peel. 

Sadly, there is some regrettably anachronistic dialogue and behaviour on the part of Victoria, who is prone to flouncing and backchat rather more than I think the real young girl was. There are also quite a few of those "background" film conversations, where two people who have known each other all their lives say things like, “As you know, when my uncle lost the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein, I was deserted by my entire family and had to spend six years as a student in Heidelberg.” 

Such a shame, because Victoria and Albert’s real courtship and early married life was genuinely romantic and interesting. It doesn’t need soap opera touches. It certainly doesn’t need the introduction of a totally fictional episode in which Albert is shot defending Victoria from her first assassination attempt. This is followed by hospital-drama-type scenes as he is rushed back into Buckingham Palace unconscious and bleeding heavily; and then a truly dreadful cutaway to Victoria, clad for no apparent reason in a voluminous black cloak and hood, in a conveniently dusty and deserted Gothic chapel (Buckingham Palace is absolutely full of these), praying for his survival. 

Apparently Martin Scorsese had something to do with this film; I find that hard to believe. I do, however, find it very easy to believe that Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, had plenty to do with it. She’s listed as one of the producers, and the film does have exactly that Reader’s Digest-meets-Oprah feeling which sadly cheapens what should be a wonderful story. 

I’d wait for the DVD if I were you.