The Young Victoria opens Friday in select theaters
The Costume Drama™ is one of the surest paths toward critical acclaim-cum-acceptance for fledgling movie stars. A period piece about the turbulent early years of Queen Victoria's reign must have seemed like a plum role for Emily Blunt, the brunette beauty who has flashed talent and cross-genre versatility in such films as My Summer of Love and The Devil Wears Prada, along with a Golden Globe-winning performance in the 2005 TV movie Gideon's Daughter.
Unfortunately, Blunt's vitality dissipates in The Young Victoria, a derivative, somnolent biopic directed by Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.). The usually reliable Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) pens a quaint, inert screenplay that lacks the brazen pop sensibility of Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, which gave Cate Blanchett instant stardom and her first Oscar nomination. But, set in the era of the constitutional monarchy and lacking the weighty threats of wars, religious tumult and deadly betrayals, the tribulations facing young Victoria seem relatively mild.
The palace intrigue here rests mainly in an ongoing parlor game of guessing which man will manage to exert the most influence over Victoria. Early in her rule, it's Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), filling the Walsingham role. However, as history books teach us, Victoria's husband and true love, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend, a poor man's James McAvoy), ends up being her most trusted advisor and protector. Indeed, in Fellowes' universe, Albert takes an assassin's bullet aimed for the queen, an event that never actually happened. Fertile subplots, like Victoria's strained relationship with her mother (Miranda Richardson), remain underdeveloped. Meanwhile, the more the film focuses on Albert's shrewd machinations, the less power Victoria truly seems to wield.
Oscar winner Sandy Powell's costume design is sumptuous, as are the on-location English settings. And Blunt demonstrates enough to prove she could carry this role were it not a prisoner of a stultifying script. As Great Britain's longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria is an important figure in English history. In The Young Victoria, however, that history gets refracted through the prism of a Mills & Boon romance.