In The Young Victoria, the 19th-century queen slouches and giggles. She sasses her advisors and elders. (The latter includes pretty much everyone in her life, seeing as she was crowned as a teenager.) In other words, she seems like an actual human—a feat not normally accomplished by period pieces that tend to present their female characters (usually played by Keira Knightley) as little more than large-hatted dolls.
Sofia Coppola tried to present relatable monarchs in her silly modern-mash-up Marie Antoinette, but director Jean-Marc Vallée manages to infuse his Young Victoria with an entertaining, relatable vibe sans Chuck Taylors and pop songs. Emily Blunt plays the title character, a girl in line to take over the throne from her uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent) and therefore ridiculously coddled by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson). Victoria never attends school. She has hired help to taste her food. And she can’t walk down the stairs without holding someone’s hand, even once she turns 18.
Unsurprisingly, that nonsense stops after Victoria’s coronation, though she understands that both her age and sheltered life mean that she’ll have to surround herself with experienced advisors. And that’s when Julian Fellowes’ (Vanity Fair, Gosford Park) script takes the film beyond mere palaces and pretty dresses. Not that it ever feels leaden: This portrayal of Victoria’s early years may be the lightest history lesson yet, but watching the queen as she expresses concern for such unroyal issues as fair labor laws and the opportunity for everyone to get a proper education—fighting naysayers such as the politically and romantically motivated Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and even her own mother along the way—engages and endears you to the character as no amount of gilded balls and impeccable manners could.
Of course, there’s a love story, too, with Melbourne trying to edge out Victoria’s more interesting and honest cousin, Albert (Rupert Friend). Their romance is occasionally heavy-handed—Vallée’s camera floats Victoria to her eventual husband for her first dance as queen—but their relationship also eventually involves a power struggle that reinforces her steely, stubborn nature. Blunt is wonderful here, her posture impossibly straight and composure royalty-befitting when she’s on the clock. Yet she also evinces more than a hint of self-doubt. This Victoria is layered and real, and in turn elevates the film from just another yawn-inducing costume drama.