Monday, February 8, 2010

The Young Victoria and Emma

L.P. Hartley, a British author, started one of his books with the sentence: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." I think this is why many people enjoy both traveling and watching movies set in a previous period. It's interesting to see both the similarities between today's life and how they lived their lives in the past. The other thing I can appreciate is that every telling of a past story comes from the mind of a person living today, so that must influence the final product they create. Unless it's meant to be a historical story, only representing facts and actual recorded conversations, I think it's okay to take liberties with historical precision to tell a good story. I think this is part of why I enjoyed Inglorious Basterds so much. Tarantino took the elements of history, but told his own story. He never represented it as a lesson in history, but perhaps a glimpse at the infinite possibilities of story telling.

The Young Victoria stars Emily Blunt in her first major role, and I have to say she carried the movie really well. She plays Britain's Queen Victoria from a young age, through her ascension, and the beginning of her reign and marriage. Victoria was the niece of William IV, and the only living descendant from his line. She was protected at a young age, she's shown in the movie being required to hold the hand of an adult whenever going up or down stairs - even when she was 17! Her mother was a German princess and closely related to the new King Leopold of Belgium, and so manipulated her daughter to favor her family over her duties to the British throne. However, her uncle's family, and his favored Prime Minister, Melbourne (played with an edge of smarmy by Paul Bettany) wanted to assure their continued power. She has been raised knowing she will be Queen, and thankfully is able to ascend when she becomes 18. There was a lot of fear the previous King would die before she reached 18, thus causing a "Regency" wherein her mother and the German/Belgian agenda was put in power. Once she attains power, as with Elizabeth I before her, she is urged to marry. Thankfully she was raised with enough self-possession to know that if she took the wrong man to marry, he might usurp her throne as much as any regent or other powerful influence - plus she'd have to sleep with him. The qualms of a young girl about marrying are as present in her performance as her fears as a monarch fearing for her throne. As was custom, she was introduced to her cousin Albert as a potential mate, also the nephew of King Leopold, which would cement England's help with Belgian rule. However, Victoria decides not to be pressured into making decisions about marriage, and they begin to write letters. Albert is completely smitten, though resents being a pawn in geopolitical machinations. Victoria also chooses to take advice from Lord Melbourne, often to the detriment of her popular image. As now, the people of England didn't care much for the monarch interfering with actual political decisions. However, back then, it had to do with the ladies in waiting of the queen, and the influence they could exert on behalf of their politically minded husbands. All of this is to explain that Victoria had a lot to navigate, all the while being only 18, 19 or 20. She does finally marry Albert, and even then has trouble finding a position for him to play. He's a Prince in his own right, but just because he marries the Queen does NOT make him king (as with the current Prince Phillip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II). They reigned together, ushering in the Victorian era which drastically improved science, public works progress, and expanded the British empire around the world. I thought it was an exceptional movie. The costumes seemed perfect, easily recognizable from the paintings and images of her that survive. The hairstyles were elaborate though not distracting, and overall made for a terrific period drama. At heart it's a love story, but it also is a feminist story celebrating the beginning of the reign of the longest serving female monarch in history. 3.5. of 5 stars.

The second period piece I enjoyed is the best version I've ever seen of Emma. While Clueless was a good adaptation, this period version starring Romola Garai (Atonement and Amazing Grace) and Johnny Lee Miller ("Eli Stone" and "Endgame") as Emma and Mr. Knightly. It's a 4 part mini-series on PBS that I'm certain will be on DVD soon. I've enjoyed the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma from the 1990s, but having seen the PBS version, I can safely say the older version is pretty crappy. Garai is a far more interesting character to watch, and embodies the spirit that all of Jane Austen's heroines possess, far better than Paltrow's performance of a bratty little girl fussing when she doesn't get her way. Johnny Lee Miller's foray into American TV was pretty great - I loved "Eli Stone" but he is terrific in the smaller British characters he's portrayed since. Michael Gambon also has a small part as Emma's curmudgeonly father. I highly recommend it if you're an Austen fan. All the details from the book, and much of the dialogue, are perfectly intact and brought to life with the same feeling as the book. 5 of 5 stars.


Fletch said...

Just saw Victoria last night. While I enjoyed the performances and seeing the machinations of the monarchy and the costumes, etc., I couldn't help but feel as though most, if not all, of the characters were flat as a piece of paper. Her mother, Sir John, Albert, and even Victoria to an extent - they all went through the film with no growth or change. John was evil, through and through (and somewhat cartoonishly - he kicks dogs, so you know he's bad!). Albert was near-perfect, with nary a flaw to be found. Her mother was weak and unprotective. We saw so many scenes where all of the same characters took all of the same actions that it felt repetitive at times.

And don't you just feel bad for Mark Strong, who apparently can ONLY play the bad guy in everything?

Jess said...

Fletch, I agree, the characters were fairly flat. In interviews, Emily Blunt said they were trying to keep as honest with history while still telling a good love story, and I think you're right, they sacrificed movie-making to keep people from throwing a fit about historical inaccuracies. "Elizabeth" worked because they gave us as much historical context as necessary and kept the characters growing along with changing history.

Mark Strong needs to play a good romantic comedy or silly comedy or he'll never get out of the mold he's stuck in. But he does a good job as a bad guy.

Reel Whore said...

My favorite part of Young Victoria was her tantrum in the bed chamber with Albert.

"No! You may not leave!"

I had wished for a bit more complexity myself, but for tame PG fare, it was pretty engaging.