“Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself, in a game being played against your will?” Posed to rabbity and moustachioed Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend) by soon-to-be teen Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt), it’s a sort of trick question, what with Albert being a thus-far fumblingly ingratiating suitor.
The question’s also intended as an indicator of Victoria’s inner turmoil—on the cusp of attaining unfathomable power, she’s still required to hold someone’s hand every time she mounts a staircase—yet like so much of what’s said throughout The Young Victoria, it hardly needs to be spoken aloud. Victoria’s sense of entrapment has been made abundantly clear in the scenes that preceded this one, which literally transpires over a chess board no less, with each of Victoria’s key oppressors, including mom (Miranda Richardson), looking on.
But it also feels like a trick question posed from one actor to another. Friend and Blunt were surely perfectly willing and handsomely remunerated participants in this lavish costume ball in search of a durable narrative thread, yet regardless of their individual merits as actors there’s no mistaking their ultimate usefulness as pretty objects to be played with and re-positioned in one terribly fraught and over-calculated scene after another. There is after all much history to plow through here, and the filmmakers don’t have time for such unruly forces as spontaneity, tension or nuance to get in the way.
So much of The Young Victoria is consumed with expository voice-over, expository letter reading and expository dialogue. Exposition usually serves a story, but in this case there’s just as much exposition as there is story. It’s hard to believe that the film, so often stiff, draggy and dull, was written by Julian Fellowes, the same fellow who scripted Gosford Park, a movie characterized by looseness, mischief and misdirection. Of course that movie was directed by Robert Altman, whose special genius incorporated those precise traits. What a different tone we find under the charge of Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose C.R.A.Z.Y. was so plagued with flashy, humdrum set-pieces, and who here seems far less engaged with the material and far less discriminate as to what to do with it. There are a few silly, show-offy effects that recall Vallée’s earlier cause célèbre—a scene where every hair on Miranda Richardson’s arm suddenly stands at attention is distracting mainly because I never imagined Richardson was so hirsute—but mostly this is buttoned-down, business-like, with every event heavily telegraphed, and the evocation of Victoria and Albert’s youthful love so repressed it’s positively, well, Victorian.
The cast is largely quite strong, with Blunt less sexy than usual yet imperious and vulnerable, very good with the small transitions such as the one where she resolves to be less emasculating to her husband—of course that’s after he takes a bullet for her. Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, the rejected corner of the movie’s political love triangle, is suitably charming and an intriguingly self-assured presence amidst all the pomp, his posture often less than erect, his hands in search of a piece of furniture to pat as he doles out sound if conservative and slyly cynical advice to the inexperienced new Queen. Jim Broadbent looks ridiculous and is an utter hoot as the outspoken King William, who unfortunately dies pretty early in the picture. Richardson would probably be great if she had more to do. Friend I’m not sure what to make of. He mostly longs for Victoria, then finally gets her and the honeymoon’s over in short shrift and he becomes hard to like. He could surely have been less mousy. But I don’t know how any actors, however talented, are supposed to do their work effectively when every scene in ultimately drowned in a score as buoyancy-sucking as that of Ilan Eshkeri’s. You’d think he’d been asked to compose music for the goddamned coronation.