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The Young Victoria

Jean-Marc Vallée

It is clear that, from the start, Jean-Marc Vallée and Julian Fellowes fully understood that the love story of Victoria and Albert presents an opportunity to fuse the best elements of the fairy tale, the biopic, and the big-screen romance. Because that's exactly what they've done in The Young Victoria. With its fleet script, its superb production values, and, most of all, its extraordinary cast, The Young Victoria affords not only a beguiling (and somewhat deconstructing) glimpse of an extremely famous monarch, but also the loveliest portrait of a happy marriage that I recall having seen. It is one of two Valentine's Day classics-of-the-future to appear in 2009, the other being Julie & Julia.

The Young Victoria begins with a brisk montage of the princess's childhood and youth that culminates with her coronation, to the strains of Handel's Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest. This acquaints us with Victoria (Emily Blunt), her mother (Miranda Richardson), and her mother's lover (Mark Strong) in fairy-tale terms: the imprisoned girl attains sovereignty over her oppressors. We also meet Victoria's uncle, Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann). The film's light-handed way with history is embodied in its handling of this recently-crowned monarch, who not only rose from provincial obscurity through distinguished service in the Russian army during the Napoleonic Wars, but who also, in a curious anticipation of his nephew, Albert, married an heiress to the British crown. In Leopold's case, the princess died before coming to the throne. When his niece Victoria became queen, Leopold was one of her closest advisers. None of this detail is touched on by Mr Fellowes's screenplay. We see Leopold only in his palatial home, in salons or on broad terraces. He is something of a wicked uncle in the movie, scheming to manipulate Victoria in the interests of Belgium. If he cannot do this himself, then he will do it through his puppet, the son of his brother Ernst: Albert (Rupert Friend).

The dim malignancy of Leopold is a reflection of the wicked-stepfatherhood of his sister's lover, Sir John Conroy. Because Victoria must, as a matter of course, obey her mother, and because her mother is the love slave of an arrogant, ill-tempered nobody, Victoria is indeed a captive princess in need of a rescuing knight. But Victoria understand her distress in this way at all; when the death of William IV (Jim Broadbent) alters her status forever, Victoria is determined not to renew her imprisonment by marrying it. That's why she implicitly turns down Albert's very tacit proposal a year or so into her reign. She does not realize that she herself is in thrall to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). Only when this attachment brings her to the edge of parliamentary catastrophe does she call upon her champion. (Happily in all of this, she has been watched over by William's widow, Queen Adelaide — and what a delightful fairy godmother Harriet Walter makes!)

We know, by this time, that Albert will indeed be Victoria's champion (if he's ever given the chance), and not his uncle's. Albert's earnest but adroit management of his wife's affairs is signaled by his proposal of marriage. Strictly speaking, he is not free to propose; Victoria must take the initiative. But Victoria is far too modest ever to ask a man (particularly a man whom she already loves) to marry her. The furthest that she can go is to say that she wants Albert to feel at home in England. He is not slow to seize the opening: To stay with you? he asks. To stay with me, she replies. To marry you? To marry me, she laughs, blushing in ratification.

We also know, thanks to the wonders of the dance, that the cousins are very much in love. At the coronation ball, Albert is Victoria's first partner (they are already very good friends), and for a moment they have the floor to themselves. Albert, not much of a dancer at the beginning of the story, has clearly been practicing, and he leads Victoria in a fluent twirl or two. Then something extraordinary happens. Victoria arches her right hand over Albert's head. We're still wondering what this means when we see that Albert is doing the same. Some of us may recall that this aerial embrace enjoyed something of a vogue during the early days of the waltz, but most of us won't, and the gesture shimmers with spontaneity, as though love alone could be its inspiration. Everything slows down, and we know that Victoria and Albert have retired to their own world, right in front of the Court.

The band plays the orchestral accompaniment to an aria from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore in which the heroine recounts a version of the Tristan and Iseult story, according to which Tristan drinks a potion that makes Iseult fall in love with him. It is inconceivable that the filmmakers were not aware of this angle, but such is the power of their vision that the viewer who is aware of it will think not of the legendary lovers but of the grand opera that would premiere in Munich twenty-five years later — another nineteenth-century institution that, like the royal couple, was not particularly "Victorian."

By then, Albert would be dead, a victim of typhoid fever. He would have fathered nine children, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the row of museums that was known, for a time, as Albertopolis. His death would plunge Victoria into an almost unconstitutional seclusion that would last for much of her remaining forty years. The Young Victoria suggests why: a love as happy as the one that unfolds before us would be dreadful to lose.

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