This review contains spoilers for Victoria. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Like a set of royal commemorative china advertised in the back pages of the Mail On Sunday, Victoria is a gleaming tribute to a certain idea of British history. Specifically, the idea of British history fictionalized in glossy Sunday night period dramas.
In that world, queens are beautiful, prime ministers are dreamy, scarred villains plot to a sinister string score, and the working class provide comic relief and morality tales below stairs. Uncomfortable truths about the age in question are either swept to one side or fashioned into anachronistic badges of honor worn by the heroes. (“Yes, Lady Walpole-Margate, he may be a shirt-lifter, but he’s also a damned fine valet and in England, we judge a man’s character by the shine on his master’s shoes,” etc.) There’s a rousing speech about England every five minutes, a clunking reference to the times changing every ten, and a costume change before every ad break.
And we love it like we love our mothers. Not just here in the UK, but also in all the nations we were busy colonizing in the period these dramas are set. We love the houses and the chandeliers, the uncomplicated moral debates, and the relaxation of an hour or more spent sitting like baby birds in a comfy nest having silk gowns and aristocrats regurgitated into our eager, open mouths.
Hence Victoria, ITV’s new eight-part miniseries starring Doctor Who‘sJenna Coleman as the young queen in the first flush of her reign. Call it Downton Abbey: The Palace Years if you like.
I’d go with Empress And Sensibility, if it scanned. There’s a real color of Austen’s Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon to the doe-eyed relationship between the young Queen Victoria and her prime minister “Lord M” (Rufus Sewell, who’s great here). Except, instead of falling for a dashing cad before coming to her senses, Victoria starts off head over heels for the old man. “He’s the only one who understands me!” she cries, rain-soaked, in episode two, every inch the moping teenager.
Victoria’s adolescent strops are her most entertaining moments so far, and roundly preferable to the wide-eyed child promising her dear papa’s portrait that she will do her best. She’s at her most watchable when channelling Miranda Richardson in Blackadder and acting a bit of a tit. See her behaving like any good teen would at their coronation ball and abusing the free bar or complaining about her lack of chin on the new coin profile for evidence of that.
Character-wise, Coleman looks wonderful in all the get-up and does a good line in wilfulness and devotion to Rufus Sewell’s cheekbones. There’s little else to go on at this early stage, which might explain why there aren’t more biopics around of famous figures in their teens.
The first two episodes show Victoria pitted against courtiers and politicians who snootily don’t believe she’s up to the task, much like King Ralph, but with more historical patriarchy and less ten-pin bowling. Largely, they seem to be right. She’s a trier, but utterly dependent on Lord M, sulking about his resignation from parliament until he relents and agrees to return.
He does so to quash the plot by Victoria’s power-hungry uncle the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth) and her mother’s manipulative aide Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys) to paint “the little Queen” as insane and thus assume power through a regency.
Labeling difficult women mad to get them out of the way is a rich historical tradition, and would have introduced a note of sobering darkness here had the whole thing not felt quite so camp. Cumberland and Conroy’s scenes made them such boo-hiss pantomime villains they may as well have stalked in with their faces covered by a cape-covered elbow.
There was more cartoon villainy below stairs with Eve Myles and Adrian Schiller’s enjoyable Mrs. Jenkins and Penge, servants on the take. They’re joined by Maid With a Shameful Secret Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), a character cut recognizably from Downton cloth.
Penge is nasty fun so far. His line about an infestation of rats “spreading through the palace like a miasma of corruption” marks him as an early favorite. That was almost as good as episode one’s deathbed “I am beyond peaches, ma’am” and Victoria’s euphemistic reference to “a criminal conversation” having taken place between two courtiers. Please join me in using that last one until it’s rightfully back in fashion.
Speaking of fashion, those gowns were a dream. The CG skylines may have had the hazy pallor of a sun-bleached book in a second hand shop window, but you can’t fault the frocks.
Utterly and designedly of its type, Victoria is a bauble. It spins fast, goes nowhere and looks good doing it. And like a set of royal commemorative china advertised in the back pages of the Mail On Sunday, it feels as though it won’t be long before it’s sitting under a layer of dust.
Victoria will premiere on American television on January 15, 2017 on PBS.