Whether in the 21st century or the 19th, single women — at least so far as the movies like to claim — don't have an easy time of it. In the 21st century, men don't want their freedom shackled with a wedding band. But in the 19th, the fellas were just dying to get hitched. That said, they might have had ulterior motives lurking behind their romantic fervor.
Or that, at least, is the topsy-turvy scenario which unfolds in The Young Victoria, a soapy, romantic take on the early days of England's longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. This film could easily dispel any impressionable young woman's Princess Diaries-notion that being a princess is a cake walk.
Victoria (Emily Blunt) has a daddy in the grave and a mother (Miranda Richardson) under the Rasputin-like spell of a money-grubbing financial advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who wants to control the daughter via the mother. In director Jean-Marc Vallée's film, young Victoria is presented as a virtual orphan anxious to find someone to serve as her ally in the back-stabbing, agenda-clogged English royal court. Her likeliest chance for such companionship is a suitor.
Two likely candidates wait in line. There is the British prime minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), a country-club type anxious to get his buddies in good with the queen by appointing their wives as Victoria's attendants. The dark horse with the smoldering, very un-British intensity is Teutonic charmer Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Albert has been sent by his uncle King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) to England to seduce and marry Victoria in order to make a politically advantageous union. Like Victoria, Prince Albert had an unhappy childhood, and talks a mean game, telling her in words that generally turn women's knees to butter, "I know what it is to live alone inside your own head, while never giving a clue as to your real feelings."
When King William (Jim Broadbent) dies and Victoria's coronation is complete, a very contemporary narrative kicks into play. Victoria comes to exemplify a rather difficult scenario. Then, as now, being a powerful woman in the boardroom does not always equal harmony in the bedroom. And unless a man wants to play lapdog in such a scheme, the flip-flopped power balance is not exactly Viagra to the male ego.
The Young Victoria moves along at a brisk clip, and its two leads are very appealing, with the kind of onscreen chemistry that makes even such run-of-the-mill love stories watchable. There are assassination attempts, grumblings from peasants about out-of-touch monarchs, and the usual court intrigue that define such period pieces. There is a tendency, as is so often the case in historical dramas, to overplay the simmering political tension to the point of unintentional silliness: eyebrows are absurdly raised, wine glasses are shattered in rage, insults are hurled, as if they were acting in some Victorian-era melodrama or, perhaps, The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
There are attempts to show Victoria's feistiness, but in the end, as is par for the course in such melodramas, Victoria's desire to be loved wins out over her need for independence. The Young Victoria transforms from a tale of a female monarch grappling with a male government into a love story about groovy lovebirds Victoria and Albert.
Playing up the romantic angle to a skin-crawling degree, The Young Victoria peters out with the kind of anachronistic "you complete me" movie love song by Sinead O'Connor that threatens to sink the whole enterprise in a river of schmaltz. "You reach a part of me that no one else can see," O'Connor sings. "You dared to let me shine, even walk a step behind." People who enjoyed the film are advised to bolt before the embarrassing strains of Queen Victoria's power ballad begin.