Sarah Ferguson: It took 15 years to bring "Victoria" to screens. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Sarah Ferguson, Britain's famous flame-haired divorcée, is haunted by old loves.
"I didn't fight for my own heart in my marriage" she says, looking slender and chic in a black dress and Christian Louboutin high heels during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
She is referring to, of course, her tumultuous, high-profile relationship with Prince Andrew, Duke of York, second son of Queen Elizabeth II. Her candid confession may explain why she was attracted to the royal romance at the center of "The Young Victoria," the period costume drama she produced with Graham King and Martin Scorsese.
"I wanted to tell a story about this royal marriage," Ferguson says, "this woman's great heart."
The film, which opens in theaters on Friday, blows the dust off one of history's great love stories, chronicling the courtship between Queen Victoria (who ruled from 1837 to 1901, longer than any other British monarch) and the man she would end up proposing to, Prince Albert.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park," "Vanity Fair"), "The Young Victoria" is a lush romance with a modern edge. Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") and Rupert Friend star as the legendary lovers in their early years, before they had nine kids.
Victoria and Albert's marriage was originally set up to ally two royal houses. In the movie, Albert is groomed by his handlers to be a successful suitor. Chess is used as a metaphor to dramatize all the political machinations behind their introduction. "Both were used as pawns," Blunt says, in a separate interview, of Victoria and Albert.
Nobody expected them to actually fall in love, but they did. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, soul mates and social reformers, ruled Britain during a time of astonishing progress and change, heralded by the onset of industrialization. Even today, their names mark almost every street corner, whether a pub, a monument or a museum. But history books are full of plot spoilers, and, as most Anglophiles know, Albert's death devastated the queen. "I don't think she knew how to exist without him," Blunt said.
Unlike Victoria, when Ferguson lost her handsome prince (she and Andrew divorced in 1996), the vivacious, often controversial duchess picked herself up and soldiered on, creating an unlikely second act for herself.
Ferguson's list of accomplishments is long and varied: a bestselling author of more than 20 books, a Weight Watchers spokeswoman and television personality. She even learned how to fly a Piper Warrior and a Jet Ranger so she could bond more with her Royal Navy husband. But first and foremost, she considers herself a humanitarian and has been active in charities, including her international efforts with the Sarah Ferguson Foundation, which helps children and families in need.
"The Young Victoria" is the duchess' first foray into narrative filmmaking, but she dismisses the idea of being labeled a "producer."
"I got married in a glass coach with six white horses. The country stopped for a day off. It was a holiday." Her voice is robust, without a trace of wistfulness. "At the age of 24, I was put on the public stage. The nation cheered. And suddenly I'd gone from private life to public life, and with it came this enormous production. And so, I'm more a producer of life."
But as the duchess can attest, when you're royalty, it's not easy living under constant public scrutiny. During her reign, Victoria survived several assassination attempts by disgruntled subjects. Friend, true to his character, defends the queen. "She made mistakes. But they never hated her. They just punished her. They always loved Victoria."
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to reside in Buckingham Palace. Nearly 200 years later, Ferguson lived there. "You suddenly look and think, 'My God, I am in Buckingham Palace. I am in one of the greatest landmarks. This is what people talk about all over the world. And I'm in there!' It's sort of surreal," she says.
About two weeks after their wedding, Andrew went to sea. Ferguson says she saw him only 40 days a year for the first five years of their marriage. So Sarah, the high-spirited young bride, retreated to her chambers on the palace's second floor, expected to conform to stiff court behavior.
"You can't build a foundation of marriage on loneliness," she says. The memory of it awakens raw emotion in her. Past hurts come tumbling out. "That's what's so cripplingly sad about our relationship . . . because I loved him completely. And then he was gone. And I said to the powers that be, 'I'll go to the ports. I don't mind. I'm from a good family, but I don't mind where I live. And they said no. 'It's too much . . . security. Too much of a nightmare.' "