“The Young Victoria” is a noteworthy title because the British queen it refers to lived to be 81 and reigned for 63 years. She was young once, of course, like everyone (except Larry King), but she’s more famous for being old. Moreover, the “Victorian Era” (i.e., most of the 1800s) is characterized by prim moral values and reserved behavior — hardly what you’d call youthful behavior.
Victoria herself was appropriately chaste before her marriage, at least if “The Young Victoria” is to believed, but she was by no means dull. As played by Emily Blunt in this sumptuous, gorgeous-looking costume drama, young Vicky is a determined, stubborn princess who refuses to be coddled. She becomes heir to the throne at age 12, with only her dotty uncle King William IV (Jim Broadbent) between her and the monarchy, leading Parliament to institute a regency: if King William should die before Victoria turns 18, her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), will be acting monarch until Victoria is old enough to wear the crown herself. Victoria finds the whole idea offensive, particularly since she knows her mother, as regent, would do whatever she was told by her power-hungry “adviser,” the wormy Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Victoria will have none of this!
Plenty of palace intrigue ensues, with the customary squabbles over which of Victoria’s potential husbands would be most suitable from a strategic standpoint. Victoria bucks against the restrictions placed upon her — a palace can be a prison, yada yada — but thrives once she takes the throne and begins to exercise some real power. Written by the reliably upscale Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park,” “Vanity Fair”), the film often feels like a straightforward historical drama about the early years of Victoria’s early reign — a biopic, in other words — but eventually zeroes in on one story in particular: Victoria’s romantic life.
England’s prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), becomes a trusted friend and adviser, and the wags of London take to calling the queen “Mrs. Melbourne.” (Oh snap! Where I come from, that earns you a beheading.) But her heart is with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), an Orlando Bloom-y young German who is her first cousin and eventually the love of her life. There are strategic reasons for Victoria and Albert to be married, though they don’t amount to much (and in truth, it’s hard for a non-anglophile to keep track of who’s king of what and how they relate to one another). The more important thing is that they’re actually in love.
This is where the film is more comfortable, away from the political machinations and focused instead on a sweet, old-fashioned romance. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (whose 2005 coming-of-age story “C.R.A.Z.Y.” was immensely likable) makes excellent use of the stunning sets and costumes at his disposal; between that and the love story, this is bound to cause much swooning within the “Pride and Prejudice” demographic.
Jim Broadbent, in his few scenes as King William, is a doddering delight, and Miranda Richardson scores as the frosty Duchess of Kent. Mark Strong is perhaps a little on-the-nose as the villainous Sir John — at one point he literally kicks a dog — but every palace drama needs a bad guy, I suppose.
Blunt is always compelling as the feisty, good-hearted Victoria, and we get several instances of her wielding righteous indignation over this injustice or that. It’s too bad Rupert Friend comes off as a bit of a drip as Prince Albert. He feels powerless as the husband of a queen, and it’s easy to see why: The way Friend plays him, the guy barely registers. Vicky and Al may have been a match romantically, but Blunt and Friend are on entirely different levels as performers. Still, their ongoing courtship and the royal elegance that surround them are liable to make one smile.
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )