If you’re quick, at the beginning of the historical biopic, The Young Victoria, you can catch glimpse of Princess Beatrice making her movie debut. Actually, you don’t need to be all that quick. The flame-haired princess is practically the first person on the screen, strewing rose petals at the tiny determined feet of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) as she strides up the aisle of Westminster Abbey for her coronation. A blast of “Zadok the Priest”, a stunning aerial shot of the vaulted ceiling, a swish of ermine, a flash of diamond … And there she is again! A vaguely embarrassed lady-in-waiting in a frou-frou confection of ivory tulle and pink silk roses, studiously not looking at the camera.
Just as you start to wonder whether Prince Harry will pop up as a henchman to the next Bond villain and how – apart from the fact that Bea is fifth in line to the throne and the great-great-great-great grand-daughter of Queen Victoria – this might have come about, the credits provide the answer. The producers are the heady quartet of Martin Scorsese, Oscar-winner Graham King (The Departed, The Aviator), his business partner, Tim Headington – and Sarah Ferguson. Spot the odd one out.
The film, an unashamedly romantic and lavish affair, follows the queen from her cloistered childhood to her ascension to the throne at the age of 18 up to the early years of her reign and her marriage to Prince Albert. Or, as the Hollywood voiceover puts it, “Her destiny/ Belonged to an empire/ But her heart/ Belonged to one man”.
It is Ferguson’s first proper foray into film, having previously provided the voice of the queen in the Disney animation, The Cat That Looked at a King. In 1993, she published Travels with Queen Victoria, in which she wrote about her own identification with the young queen’s desire to escape from the constraints of royal life. She later met King in LA and suggested a fresh take on the story. “All people see of Victoria is a melancholy queen in mourning, dressed in black,” she said. “She should be remembered as a beautiful girl, skipping through the grass in bare feet. Hers is a wonderful love story.”
King picks up the story: “I talked to Marty [Scorsese] about it and he pointed out it had never been done before. I’ve been trying to make a film in the UK for 15 years and I’d never found the right script. But this felt right.”
What also felt right was probably the knowledge that royal films are big business, both in the UK and overseas. The concentration on a peculiarly privileged bunch of individuals, repressed romance, gorgeous, historical locations (The Young Victoria was shot mainly at Lincoln Cathedral and Belvoir Castle) and painstakingly recreated costumes appeal to a particularly ingrained concept of Britishness. Aside from the royal connection, the screenplay is written by renowned aristophile Julian Fellowes, whose classy, class-ridden murder mystery, Gosford Park won an Oscar in 2002. Its star is Emily Blunt (a luminous, playful and very modern monarch), already a familiar face in LA thanks to her Golden Globe-nominated turn as a snooty bitch in The Devil Wears Prada. Her lover is played by the fragile and magnificently cheek-boned Rupert Friend, aka official consort to the queen of English roses, Keira Knightley. Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson and Harriet Walter make up the supporting cast.
In fact, the only curve-ball is the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, a 45-year-old Canadian whose last film C.R.A.Z.Y., about a young gay man in conservative 1960s Quebec, was an art-house hit. Though he initially rejected the idea of a “cute period film”, he clearly revels in the pomp, his camera flying over rows of perfectly aligned glistening glasses at a royal banquet, lingering over elegant bustles of silk and whirling through quadrille-dancing feet.
Vallée will no doubt hope to emulate the success of The Queen, following last year’s rather weak attempts, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Duchess. As Victoria, Blunt follows in the footsteps of Cate Blanchett, another fresh-faced talent whose decision to don a ruff, wig and pearls in Elizabeth propelled her into a different league. Playing a queen on screen is also, as Helen Mirren (an Oscar for The Queen and a nomination for her Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George) and Judi Dench (an Oscar for her Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and a nomination for Mrs Brown) a sure-fire route to gaining rare Hollywood recognition as an older woman. Who can blame Princess Bea for wanting to get in on the act?