Queen Victoria on screen
How can the lengthy life and reign of such a complex character as Queen Victoria be encapsulated in a film? Ted Powell reviews three memorable portrayals of the monarch on screen, from an early biopic to recent dramas
Victoria the Great (Director: Herbert Wilcox, 1937)
A nostalgic biopic appealing to the British public in the troubled years of the late 1930s
In the early 20th century, censorship rules proscribed the representation of reigning or recent monarchs on stage or screen. The ban on portrayals of Queen Victoria was not lifted until 1937, the centenary of her accession, which was also the year of the coronation of her great-grandson, King George VI. Victoria the Great, the first ‘talkie’ film biography of the queen, appeared later that year, with Anna Neagle in the title role. It was a huge critical and popular success – so much so that a sequel, Sixty Glorious Years, was made the following year.
Victoria the Great is less than two hours long, but manages to cover much of her reign. The initial scenes concentrate on Victoria’s private life, with the familiar story of her accession, the meeting and marriage with Prince Albert, and her eventual acceptance of Albert as her partner and adviser in ruling. In a famous scene, cloying by modern standards, Victoria meekly submits to Albert as her husband after an argument over his exclusion from affairs of state.
The great statesmen of the age all make an appearance, from the Duke of Wellington and Lord Palmerston to Gladstone and Disraeli. The film is in black and white but the climax, shot in Technicolor, shows the old queen, beloved of her people, receiving the acclaim of the crowds amid the pomp and pageantry of her diamond jubilee in 1897.
The second film, meanwhile, concentrates more on the queen’s public role, running through a cavalcade of the major events of her reign, such as the repeal of the corn laws, the charge of the Light Brigade and the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Not surprisingly, as an early example of its kind, Victoria the Great was hagiography; indeed, nowadays it might almost be viewed as propaganda for the monarchy. The reverent tone of the film is very different from the “this is what they are really like” flavour of modern films about Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Victoria is presented as a symbolic, almost sacred figure, dutifully discharging the heavy burdens of state.
After the First World War and the Great Depression, Victoria’s reign seemed like a golden age of prosperity and stability
The film’s success was no doubt due in part to its nostalgic appeal. In the uncertain years of the late 1930s, after the horrors of the First World War and the trauma of the Great Depression, Victoria’s reign seemed like a golden age of prosperity and stability. Like many others, Queen Mary, widow of George V, who attended a showing of Sixty Glorious Years in 1938, was seen leaving the cinema in tears. After the shock of Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, Victoria the Great helped to reinforce the idea of the monarchy as central to the identity of the nation at a time of turbulence and crisis.
The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009)
A sumptuous but historically accurate portrayal of the queen’s early reign
Released a decade ago, The Young Victoria has since been overshadowed by the success of the TV series Victoria. This is a shame, because it is a high-quality historical drama offering an excellent introduction to the reign of Queen Victoria. It boasts an all-star cast and a top-flight production team including Martin Scorsese, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. Its authenticity is enhanced by the use of famous English locations such as Hampton Court and Blenheim Palace.
The Young Victoria manages to capture the febrile atmosphere surrounding Victoria’s succession
The Young Victoria deftly interweaves the familiar royal themes of romance, family and political events. The plot is driven by the struggle of the men around Victoria to control her destiny as she approaches her succession to the throne. They include Sir John Conroy, the domineering comptroller of the household of her mother, the Duchess of Kent; her uncle King Leopold of Belgium, who schemes for a British alliance; and the wily prime minister, Lord Melbourne.
Caught in the middle is Victoria herself, a spirited teenager eager to break out of the suffocating constraints of the ‘Kensington system’ imposed on her by Conroy and her mother. As soon as she becomes queen, she distances them from court. However, there is still the vexed question of whom she will marry, as princes and politicians vie for influence.
Fortunately, she falls in love with one of the candidates, the handsome young Prince Albert. In a key scene, they play chess together. Victoria admits that she feels like a pawn in a game played by others. Albert replies: “You had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.” He offers to play it with her: the rest is history.
The central performances of Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert are well balanced and convincing, and their chemistry is palpable. Jim Broadbent almost steals the show with a wonderful cameo portrayal of Victoria’s eccentric uncle King William IV. In a memorable but historically accurate scene, at his birthday celebrations he insults Victoria’s mother, and prays that he may live long enough to prevent her from becoming regent. In the event, he did just that, dying just a few weeks after Victoria attained her majority on her 18th birthday.
The film scores high marks for historical accuracy, and manages to capture the febrile atmosphere surrounding Victoria’s succession. Purists may cavil that Prince Albert was not wounded in an assassination attempt on the queen, and that Lord Melbourne looks far too young, but on the whole it sticks close to the historical record and avoids the temptation to turn Victoria into a feminist icon. At the end of the film we see Prince Albert moving his desk into his wife’s study, as a contrite Victoria accepts that he has finally won the struggle to control her.
Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears, 2017)
A touching tale of friendship between a cantankerous queen and her Indian servant
Based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, Victoria and Abdul tells the story of the close friendship between the elderly Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, whom she called “the Munshi” (teacher). Abdul came to Britain in 1887 to take part in the queen’s golden jubilee celebrations. Victoria took a shine to the handsome young clerk, and appointed him her Indian secretary. He remained a firm favourite for the rest of the queen’s life, apparently filling the emotional void left by the death of her beloved Scottish servant, John Brown. She showered him with gifts and honours, and promoted him within the royal household, much to the outrage of her British servants.
Visually stunning, the film is at its best when portraying the stifling artificiality of court life. The tone is set at the beginning with a brilliant – and very funny – set piece depiction of the jubilee banquet. A grumpy queen races through the courses, forcing her guests to bolt their food before the dishes are cleared away. Judi Dench, as Victoria, effortlessly dominates the film. Having previously played the middle-aged queen in Mrs Brown (1997), with Billy Connolly as Brown, she thoroughly inhabits this role. She manages to win our sympathy for the ageing, emotionally isolated queen, while leaving no doubt as to how impossible she must have been.
Victoria and Abdul is less sure-footed when dealing with the delicate issue of the racist assumptions underpinning the British Raj, veering uneasily between comedy and indignation. Victoria aside, British characters are all depicted as racist buffoons. However, the Indian characters are themselves little more than caricatures. Abdul’s sidekick Mohammed Buksh is played mainly for laughs, though he dies at the end of the film, a victim of the foul British climate. Abdul, played by Ali Fazal, is seen too much through Victoria’s eyes as the exotic Indian servant, and he remains a rather two-dimensional character. We are offered neither a hard-hitting critique of British colonialism nor a more nuanced exploration of the relationship between Britain and India at the height of Victorian imperialism.
Judi Dench wins our sympathy for the ageing, emotionally isolated queen, while leaving no doubt as to how impossible she was
The historical authenticity of the film is also undermined by some clunky and anachronistic dialogue. “What could possibly go wrong?” asks Abdul, as he pulls the emergency cord on the royal train. “I didn’t do seven years at Edinburgh University to look at Indian dicks!” fulminates the queen’s doctor, James Reid, on being instructed to examine the Munshi. But does this matter? After all, Victoria and Abdul is drama, not documentary. It portrays a touching and unlikely love story with charm and wit. As a vehicle for Judi Dench to reprise her role as the cantankerous Queen Victoria, it succeeds triumphantly. It is an enjoyable movie – just don’t take it as history.