The James Clayton Column: Victoria: Young lover or tough mother?

James wants to have a chat about The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt. And why we should have a film about young Yoda...


Who knew that Queen Victoria looked like Emily Blunt? The popular impression of Britain’s most long-lasting monarch (though Lizzie II may yet top her) is of a dour matriarch, grand but resolutely glum. Photographs of the Great British Empress present a large old lady wearing dark mourning dress which, despite suggesting a gloomy depression, also evinces an aura of a sophisticated and elegant sovereign. Her regal eminence is usually accentuated by the petite crown-and-tea-cosy-type-thing combo atop her Highness’ head.

Emily Blunt – who looks a hell of a lot less like a morose basset hound than the individual in the photos – is, of course, not playing the ‘Old Vic’ but the eponymous heroine of newly-released The Young Victoria.

The movie follows Victoria’s trajectory from childhood to the throne, chronicling the beginning of her reign and the development of her relationship with her beloved Prince Albert. Because the widely-accepted image stems from Victoria’s sadder, solitary later years, she never appears as a sexualised monarch and you wouldn’t consider her as a woman of desire and infatuation. It’s understandable, therefore, why a chronicle of the Queen’s lesser-known youth and passionate romance with her German paramour, portrayed by such a fresh-faced and attractive person as Blunt, would be viewed as a brilliant project to push out into cinemas.

The fact that the love lives and leisure pursuits of Princes William and Harry continue to fill gossip magazines and tabloid papers shows that this kind of material has popular appeal. I’m not overly impressed though, in part due to my antipathy to the monarchy as an institution (as far as political systems go, rule as dispensed by some watery tart throwing a sword at you seems far more sensible). To be honest, the common conceptualisation of Old Victoria captivates me more than the prospect of precocious Victoria.

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It may be true that Victoria’s early years were fraught with frustrating difficulties and that her romance with Prince Albert makes for a sweepingly epic story, but the image of old-age Victoria strikes my mind as being a more fertile proposition for imaginative film production.

Quite frankly, I’ve had my fill of the amorous adventures of flighty young aristocrats and would be more taken with some darker material dwelling in the Empress’depressed dotage. Suspending all anxiety over historical accuracy and thus throwing ourselves full-on into absurd anachronism, a bravura war movie based around the battleaxe Queen (dressed up as Britannia and riding on a Union Jack-decked chariot across the oceans to colonise every corner of the Earth) would be fun. Old Victoria also comes across as the kind of creepy old woman whose presence forms the core of many a horror film plot (think ‘Mother’ in Psycho). I see her as a similar figure to old Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm who acts as the ominous overriding Imperial authority, except she is the “something nasty in the woodshed” (or more appropriately, the palace) that provokes horrendous fear as well.

In her dead-eyed dominance she looks, in a bizarre way, like a more-refined, slime-free version of Jabba the Hutt or perhaps – to be more polite and disassociate the venerable Queen from such intergalactic scum and villainy – the archetypal Italian grandmother who dominates the domestic scene. No matter how many guys they whack, every mob hood and Mafioso tough guy is a mumbling mama’s boy back home where the matriarch reigns supreme with old country values and a mighty maternal discipline. I’m sure that an operatic drama of the power and politics of empire could be pulled together giving us a Great British version of The Godfather. Don Vic for Don Vito is almost a straight swap: simply substitute “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” for “we are not amused”.

Maybe I’m also unenthusiastic because The Young Victoria stands as yet another film that approaches an iconic figure by pointing the lens at their earlier years. With regard to English monarchs, Cate Blanchett and Anne Marie-Duff are just a couple of actors who’ve taken a turn as Elizabeth I in productions plotted around the Virgin Queen’s youth. Staying in the 16th century, Eric Bana and Jonathan Rhys Meyers have both recently appeared as a rather more strapping, slightly-skinnier version of Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors TV series respectively. The trend isn’t limited to royals, as seen in Becoming Jane (Anne Hathaway as pre-fame Jane Austen) or indeed Brits as boldly shown by Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which fluffed up the French aristocrat’s tale with high-fashion and a 1980s New Wave soundtrack.

When you’ve also been offered the evolutionary adolescence of Che Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries) and every action, horror or comic franchise is keen to craft an origins story or prequel piece, it’s possible to speculate that soon every blockbuster biopic will be rooted in childhood. With the obsession seemingly all about going younger, it’s worth wondering: will Steven Spielberg’s planned President Lincoln biopic be titled Abe The Embryo? We may need to go back to conception to get full character-development: The Sperm That Saved America?

Modern society is obsessed with youth and this fetish has found itself projected into historical biography films. Despite this, if moviemakers are so keen on focusing on the early days of iconic figures, instead of regurgitating information already available in history books (with a dash of dramatic spice and sexiness for good measure), I’d request that they venture into the world of science fiction for a geek-pleasing diversion.

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There’s an intriguing moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker arrives on Dagobah to beg for Yoda’s personal tutelage. The great Jedi is initially reluctant and dismisses Luke as impatient and reckless, but capitulates after the shade of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi remarks that he too was a petulant Padawan way back when.

Sadly, the saga prequels showed that Kenobi’s crazy youth was actually nothing more than Ewan McGregor being a bit grumpy, but here an interesting point surfaces from beneath the Dagobah swamp. What was Yoda like as a budding baby Jedi? Was the wise green one always wrinkled? How did the neophyte Jedi overcome those adolescent impulses towards the opposite sex? Is the Force effective against acne? Detailing the future Grand Master’s development to adulthood and ascent to acceptance in the face of adversity (“Judge me by my size do you?”), The Young Yoda would grip me way more than another romanticised juvenile jaunt through history.

James’ previous column can be found here.