“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

About a year or so before his popular television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY” hit the airwaves, Julian Fellowes served as screenwriter to the lavish biopic about the early life and reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria called “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. The 2009 movie starred Emily Blunt in the title role and Rupert Friend as the Prince Consort, Prince Albert.

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” began during the last years in the reign of King William IV, Victoria’s uncle. Acknowledge as the next ruler of Britain, Victoria became the target of a political tug-of-war between her mother, the Duchess of Kent royal aide Sir John Conroy on one side, and King Leopold I of Belgium on the other. The Duchess of Kent and Sir John want to assume power of the country by having Victoria sign papers declaring a regency. And Leopold I tries to influence the British throne by securing a marriage between Victoria and one of his two nephews – Prince Albrt and Prince Ernst of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Meanwhile, King William eventually dies and Victoria becomes Queen. Once she assumes the throne, Victoria becomes beseiged by her mother and many others to assume some kind control over her.

I was surprised to discover that one of the producers for “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was Hollywood icon, Martin Scorsese. A biopic about the early reign of Queen Victoria did not seem to be his type of movie. Then I remembered that this is the man who also directed an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel and a movie about Jesus Christ. But for the likes of me, I never could see his interest in this film. Did he ever read Julian Fellowes’ screenplay before he took on the role as one of the movie’s executive producers? Or was there another reason why he became interested in this project? Perhaps Fellowes’ screenplay seemed more interesting before it was translated to screen. Because if I must be honest, I was not that impressed by it.

You heard me right. I did not like “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. Perhaps it was the subject matter. Aside from being Britain’s longest reigning monarch, until her great-great granddaughter surpassed her record last year, Victoria never struck me as an interesting subject for a motion picture. I am surprised that both the Hollywood and British film and television industries were able to create a few interesting movie and television productions about her. Unfortunately, “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” did not prove to be one of them.

I am not saying that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was a total washout. It had a good number of first-rate performances and other technical details to admire. Emily Blunt did an excellent job in portraying the young Victoria by effectively conveying the character from a naive teenager to an emotional, yet slightly matured young mother in her early twenties. Blunt had a decent screen chemistry with Rupert Friend, whom I thought made a superb Prince Albert. If I must be frank, I feel that Friend was the best on-screen Albert I have seen so far. Miranda Richardson gave her usual uber-competent performance as Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Actually, I believe that both she and Friend gave the two best performances in the movie. Paul Bettany gave a very smooth, yet ambiguous performance as one of Victoria’s favorite ministers – William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne. Other members of the cast that included Jim Broadbent (as an emotional William IV), Thomas Kretschmann, Julian Glover, Genevieve O’Reilly, Rachael Stirling, Jesper Christensen, Michael Huisman, Jeanette Hain and David Robb all gave solid performances.

I also thought the movie’s physical appearance was sharp, colorful and elegant thanks to Hagen Bogdanski’s beautiful photography. Patrice Vermette did a first-rate job in re-creating royal Britain of the late 1830s and early 1840s, thanks to her elegant production designs; and the art direction team of Paul Inglis, Chris Lowe and Alexandra Walker, who all received an Academy Award nomination for their work. Of course I cannot mention “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” without mentioning Hollywood legend Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costume designs shown below:

Not only were Powell’s costumes gorgeous, they accurately reflected the movie’s setting between 1836 and 1842. It is not surprising that Powell won both the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Costume Design.

So, why am I not enamored of this movie? Well . . . I found it boring. Let me rephrase that answer. I found most of the movie boring . . . as hell. I will admit that I found Victoria’s emotional struggles with her mother and the latter’s courtier, Sir John Conroy, rather interesting. There seemed to be some kind of quasi-fairy tale quality to that particular conflict. And I will admit to finding Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne slightly fascinating. Otherwise, the movie bored me. Most of the movie centered around Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. But despite Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend’s sterling performances, I was not able to sustain any interest in that particular relationship. It did not help that Fellowes made a historical faux pas by allowing Albert to attend her coronation in 1838 – something that never happened. The most interesting aspect of the royal pair’s relationship – at least to me – was their shitty relationship with their oldest son, the future King Edward VII. Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative ended before his birth.

There were other aspects of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that did not appeal to me. Although I found Victoria’s early struggles against the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy rather interesting, I was not impressed by the movie’s portrayal of the latter. I do not blame actor Mark Strong. He still managed to give a competent performance. But his Sir John came off as a mustache-twirling villain, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ham fisted writing. And could someone explain why Paul Bettany had been chosen to portray Lord Melbourne in this movie? The Prime Minister was at least 58 years old when Victoria ascended the throne. Bettany was at least 37-38 years old at the time of the film’s production. He was at least two decades too young to be portraying Victoria’s first minister.

The one aspect of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that I found particularly repellent was this concept that moviegoers were supposed to cheer over Victoria’s decision to allow Albert to share in her duties as monarch. May I ask why? Why was it so important for the prince consort to co-reign with his wife, the monarch? Granted, Victoria was immature and inexperienced in politics when she ascended the throne. Instead of finding someone to teach her the realities of British politics, the government eventually encouraged her to allow Albert to share in her duties following an assassination attempt. This whole scenario smacks of good old-fashioned sexism to me. In fact, I have encountered a similar attitude in a few history books and one documentary. If Victoria had been Victor and Albert had been Alberta, would Fellowes had ended the movie with Alberta sharing monarchical duties with Victor? I rather doubt it. Even in the early 21st century, the idea that a man was more suited to be a monarch than a woman still pervades.

It is a pity that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” failed to appeal to me. It is a beautiful looking movie. And it featured fine performances from a cast led by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. But the dull approach to the movie’s subject not only bored me, but left me feeling cold, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ponderous screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée’s pedestrian direction. How on earth did Martin Scorsese get involved in this production?

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

Four years ago, Assaf Bernstein directed a movie about three retired Mossad agents confronted by a challenge from their past in a movie called “THE DEBT”. Just recently, John Madden directed a remake of this movie with the same title. Although originally intended for a December 2010 release date, the movie was finally released at the end of August. 

This new version of “THE DEBT” The espionage thriller began in 1997, when two retired Mossad agents, Rachel as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel Singer and Stefan Gold have received shocking news about their former colleague David Peretz. All three have been celebrated by Israel for thirty-one years for successfully tracking down a Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel back in 1965-55 in East Berlin. However, the reactions of both Rachel and Stefan and several flashbacks questioned whether or not if the team’s mission was accomplished.

I have never seen the 2007 version. Which means there is no way I could compare this new version to the older one. But I could say this about “THE DEBT” . . . I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen this past summer. In fact, I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen this year. “THE DEBT” is a superb thriller about a dangerous mission to capture a Nazi war criminal – a mission that led to a labyrinth of lies, guilt, regrets and a desire to correct a mistake. The sequences set in Israel and Russia of the late 1990s and in flashback sequences, 1965-66 East Berlin. The three protagonists in the film proved to be a complicated trio, haunted by not only the Holocaust, but also their personal demons and desires.

The central figure in the story is Rachel Singer, a former Mossad agent who gave up her career when she became pregnant with her only child. Rachel spends the years 1965 to 1997 being caught between two men – the team’s charismatic and womanizing leader, Stefan Gold; and the quiet and intense David Peretz. Both of them became attracted to her. But whereas Stefan viewed Rachel as a brief romance, David began falling in love with her. Rachel felt the same, but turned to Stefan for a one night stand – an act that ended up having major consequences in the relationship between the trio. In a very intense and well directed sequence, the agents finally managed to capture Vogel. But a bad encounter with East German guards at the Wollankstraße Station forced them to take Vogel back to their safe house and guard him, until they can find another way to get him to Israel. What followed was a deliciously acted cat-and-mouse game between manipulative Vogel and his three captors. The shocks and tensions continued, once the story shifted permanently to 1997. In that time frame, Rachel was forced to travel to Russia and clean up a mess caused by the major secret created by the three colleagues back in 1966. I wish I could give away the story, but to do so would give away the plot twists. All I can say is that one of the best aspects of this movie are the plot twists.

The acting was superb. Jesper Christensen, who had impressed me in the last two James Bond movies, was even more fascinating in his subtle performance as the ruthless, yet manipulative Dieter Vogel. Both Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds gave solid performances as the older Stefan and David. But the real star of the 1997 sequences was Helen Mirren, who was wonderful as an older Rachel, who believed that she had finally put the past behind her. She also proved that one could still be a first-rate female action star at the age of 65/66. If Helen Mirren was the star of the 1997 sequences, the real stars of the entire movie were Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. In my review of 2010’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, I had not been kind to Chastain’s performance in that movie. A lot of my criticism had to do with how her character was written. But I must admit that she was superb as the younger Rachel, who found herself caught up not only in a deadly mission with a dangerous adversary; but also in an emotionally confusing situation between two men. Cskokas gave an enlightening performance as the colorful and commanding Stefan, whose extroverted facade hid an ambitious drive that made him willing to do anything to maintain his career. It was good to see Sam Worthington in a first-rate role after nearly two years. His portrayal of David Peretz was probably the most intense in the entire episode. Worthington did a superb job of conveying not only David’s quietly expressed desire for Rachel, but also his reluctance to get emotionally involved with others following the loss of his entire family during the Holocaust.

If “THE DEBT” had one flaw – at least for me, it was the ending. I have to be honest. I usually do not mind if a movie ends on an ambiguous or vague note . . . as long as it works. For me, such an ending worked for the 2010 movie, “INCEPTION”. The vague note on which “THE DEBT” ended, failed to work for me. It simply did not feel right and I had the suspicion that either Madden or screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossoff were trying to be just a little too artistic. And “THE DEBT” struck me as the type of story that did not need an ambiguous ending of that kind.

Despite the movie’s unnecessarily vague ending, I must admit that I truly enjoyed “THE DEBT”. It had an exciting and fascinating story that was served well by the screenwriters, director John Madden and a superb cast led by Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. As I had stated earlier, it became one of my favorite movies of both the summer and of this year so far.