On Wikipedia, you can find the first photograph of Queen Victoria (it’s from 1844), and though she looks younger and more relaxed than the famous image we’re used to — the frowning dowager in her black lace widow’s kerchief — she’s a far cry from…well, Emily Blunt. Blunt, however, is such a wily and playful actress that in The Young Victoria, she makes her twinkly ivory radiance fit the role. Her beauty comes off not as the usual period eye candy but as an expression of Victoria’s inner grace — her deceptive ability to go with the flow.
As a teenager, Victoria doesn’t quite know why she wants to be queen, but she does know she was born to shoulder that glorious burden. The morning that King William IV (Jim Broadbent) dies, Blunt gazes into a mirror, with a look of How will I do this?, and that brief humanizing glance is enchanting. It makes her seem royally real. Written by Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of Gosford Park, The Young Victoria traces its heroine’s early years by embracing a radical concept: It sticks close to historical fact, and thereby presents the choices faced by a naive young queen not as a confectionary costume melodrama but as the nuanced political passion play it well may have been. The most craven schemers — Victoria’s mother (Miranda Richardson) and the consort (Mark Strong) she’s ruled by — are defeated without much fanfare. Victoria’s real problem is deciding which colleague to trust: the unctuously affable Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who exploits her insecurities, or her cousin Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), whom she falls in love with, but who’s essentially working as an undercover agent for his uncle, the king of Belgium.
At first, Victoria trusts too much; then, after marrying Albert, she trusts too little. She’s an English-monarch Goldilocks, trying to figure out how much manipulation is just right. The Young Victoria has a subtler flow than you might expect, and at times it’s calmer than you may like. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s images have a creamy stateliness, but this is no gilded ? princess fantasy — it’s the story of a budding ruler who learns to control her surroundings, and Blunt makes that journey at once authentic and relevant. Victoria, a leader who changed the world, becomes any young woman brave enough to seize her moment. B+