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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Young Victoria'

With a transcendent Emily Blunt in the title role and Rupert Friend splendid as Prince Albert, director Jean-Marc Vallée has created a terrific period piece that retains a modern-day freshness.

December 18, 2009|By Betsy Sharkey FILM CRITIC >>>
  • Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend star in "The Young Victoria."
Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend star in "The Young Victoria." (Liam Daniel )

"The Young Victoria," starring Emily Blunt as the 18-year-old queen of England circa 1837, is such a rich pastiche of first love, teen empowerment, fabulous fashion and fate that you almost wish a few brooding vampires had been thrown in for good measure, since that's the crowd that should fall head over heels for this movie.

Which isn't to suggest that "Young Victoria" is sophomoric. It is anything but. What filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée has done in this delicious historical romance is capture that hot blush of pure emotion that comes before kisses, sex, heartbreak and the rest can dilute it. Vallée understands the power in the promise of things to come, and though kings and queens might abuse the power, the director uses it wisely.


FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this story referred to Prince Albert as Belgian. He was prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

You might worry too, since we've had so many Elizabeths and Henrys entertaining us in recent years, if another costume drama on the British monarchy would feel tired. Again, the answer would be no, for this is a smartly told story, and as fresh as any contemporary romance.

Here much of the credit has to go to its two stars, Blunt and Rupert Friend as the equally young Prince Albert who would steal Victoria's heart. They have been given a lot to work with since despite the era, Victoria and Albert are a couple with modern problems: she has to ask him to marry her, rules of the court; she makes more than he ever will, perks of the crown; she wears the crown in the family, luck of the draw.

Blunt and Friend make the most of the inherent tension in their role reversals and their relative youth. It all plays out a bit like their first waltz in front of the entire court, they are so intent on each other you feel as if you want to be careful not to intrude, yet you can't look away. Vallée makes the most of that electricity too, lingering at all the right moments, content to let things smolder. Even the brief hesitation as they walk up a staircase, looks exchanged, nothing said, is filled with portent.

Whatever else it's done, "Young Victoria" has put to rest any question of whether Blunt, who's done well by so many secondary characters including the scene-stealing assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada," could carry a film. This is a big movie, big story and Blunt proves more than up to the task. She infuses the character with high spirits, humor, intelligence and headstrong determination, dancing neatly between a teenager's whimsy and an adult's sense of history.(You can imagine why Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York and a producer on the film, was such a fan.) Blunt's face has that openness of youth that allows you in, even tiny emotional shifts register with barely a blink.

She is helped in this by Julian Fellowes' ("Gosford Park") excellent script, inspired as much for what it doesn't do -- that would be long recountings of historical details to bore you and lots of bodice-ripping to tease you. Fellowes reveals the humanity of his subjects, whether pawns or players in the high stakes world of empire-building.

Since hearts as much as empires are at stake in the film, the filmmakers don't waste time, dispensing with what history we need with a few title cards and a clever use of narration in spots, particularly when letters start flying during the courtship, to fill in the necessary blanks.

That less-is-more sensibility proves to be one of "The Young Victoria's" strengths. The filmmakers do not over-explain, nor do they overdo. For all the lush opulence of the period given us by costume and production designers Sandy Powell and Patrice Vermette, respectively, what we see through cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski's lens is beautifully spare -- great stretches of manicured lawns, palace hallways that seem to have no end -- a choice that complements Victoria's often solitary life.

Other than her destiny to lead a country, Victoria seems very much like most teenagers -- at odds with her mother, desperate to do all the things she's not quite old enough for, eager to be in charge of her life, eager to share it too. Since she is, after all, young, mistakes are made and palace intrigues ensue as we move through her courtship, coronation, marriage and the first of nine children.

Particularly good at stirring things up are an excellent trio: Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent, drawing in her emotions as tightly as her corsets; Mark Strong as the man who controls the mother, unleashing his rage in flashes; and Paul Bettany's Lord Melbourne, whose well-played hands land mom on the outs. Bettany fairly oozes condescension.

As Albert was for his queen -- the smartest advisor and most loyal ally she would ever have -- Friend is for Blunt. He gives her enough space to create a star turn, at the same time he holds his ground. Their chemistry is such that you sense their passion and playfulness whether a romp in bed or on horseback, rain-soaked by a summer storm. Together they create a couple that could become like Tracy and Hepburn, one you'll want to see again. But until then, "The Young Victoria" is a great place to start.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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