Friday, May 24, 2024

Victoria has Royal Potential But Lacks Focus

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It’s that time of the year again. The time when viewers in North America finally get to see the shows that were broadcast in Britain last year! In years past, that usually meant Downton Abbey, but now that that particular ship has sailed. Instead, the big news is the ITV series Victoria. Or as most people on this site probably know it as: “The reason Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who.

And she was kind of perfect. In fact, Coleman’s performance as the memetastic monarch is the standout positive feature in a production that is…okay. I liked it. I guess.

The good news is that she may have been born to play this role. Colman and Victoria certainly both have the quality of dominating a room, despite being very small. (Though Victoria, at under 5 foot, was even shorter than Coleman is.) The excellent cast also includes Tom Hughes as champion low-talker Prince Albert, Catherine Fleming as The Duchess of Kent (and every mother of mother of an adult who can’t deal with that fact ever), Peter Firth as the villainous (more on that later) Duke of Cumberland, and Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne.

Coleman’s Victoria is very eighteen when the production starts. The new-found freedom she has now that she’s out from under the thumb of her helicopter mom and her creepy advisor Sir John Conway expresses itself as a desire to do everything herself without advice. This quickly falls apart when even she has to admit that her more or less total lack of education makes her rather unprepared for being a constitutional monarch. But not before she gets to spend the first couple of episodes slutshaming a woman to death, getting drunk at her own Coronation Ball, and bringing down the government so that she wouldn’t need to add any of those nasty Tories to her snazzle of ladies.

As a coming of age story for Victoria, the series works quite well and has a very natural progression. She slowly managed to find a balance between her need for independence and her desire to do her duty. And also her desire to have sex with her husband. My knowledge of Victoria’s later life—especially her repeated bouts of postpartum depression resulting in what is, in my opinion, an unhealthy emotional dependence on her husband and his slow cannibalizing of what political role she had—made these developments more bittersweet than anything. I’m curious, and a little apprehensive, about the way the next series will handle this. There were a few moments that have already veered into maybe toeing the line of anachronism, specifically in the service of, well, not a feminist reading exactly, but more an acknowledgement that this show was written in 2016 and feminism is good.

I’m not sure how sustainable this will be when she’ll literally telling Albert he’ll be proud of her for behaving like a good girl.

In what can only really be seen as a rather transparent attempt to capture the tone of previous ITV juggernaut Downton Abbey, there is also a substantial cast of major characters “below stairs,” including Outlander alum Nell Hudson and Gwen Cooper herself, Eve Myles. The stories in this part of the series are in no way bad, and the characters are very well-realized and acted, but, as I said it’s all rather transparent and I can’t help but feel that it detracts from what surely should be a series about Victoria’s development, both personal and political. Maybe a bit like something else.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to know all about Miss Skerrett mysterious past as much as anyone, but I can’t help thinking if the time it took to go through all that drama would not have been better spent on making a lot of the political content a little more substantial.

I’m not sure how fair this criticism is. There were several episodes that touched on important issues of the day, including the Newport Rising, the cholera outbreak of 1849, the abolitionist movement, and the building of the first railways. But unlike the personal dramas, these themes invariably show up for one episode, then disappear. And even then, they’re always about how they affect the small circle of our principal characters rather than about the issue itself or it’s great implications. The abolitionist movement, for example, is much more about Albert and how this cause gave him a purpose and identity beyond being Mr. Victoria than it was actually about the effect the movement had on the discourse of the time. It makes the scope of the series feel oddly small, given the fact that it’s about people who literally ruled half the world.

It’s not stupid, of course, that a series named Victoria should mostly focus on Victoria and how things affect her, but it seems a missed opportunity to elevate above your standard costume drama.

Also in the win column: the costumes and production design. I haven’t been able to suss out what the budget for this show is, but man is every bit of it visible on screen. The interiors are ridiculously detailed, including the large bits of Buckingham Palace that were recreated in an aircraft hanger in Selby. Apart from a couple of odd choices for the Duchess of Sutherland, all the costumes passed my rather anal eye for anachronism, and were very pretty besides. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate little things like them actually bothering to make sure all the ladies are riding horses side-saddle. (Seriously, this is another thing about a certain show that drives me insane).

The loser column? Well, the strange subplot with the servants might have been pulled off alright in the end, but the same can’t be said for the romance(?) between Albert’s brother Ernst and the Duchess of Sutherland. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t even a hint of anything like this relationship between these two actual historical figures. Making one up between them therefore seems… a little rude, especially since the culmination is Good Guy™ Erst patting himself on the back for keeping it in his pants. Also, poor Harriet had eleven children and was a baby factory during this whole period.

And then there is the Duke of Cumberland. Victoria’s evil uncle, heir presumptive, and guy who literally has evil music following him around wherever he goes. To say they overdid this character’s evilness would be being very generous indeed. It was a very odd tonal choice to have this cartoon villain in a show with a woman who things jumping up and down on the bed after sex is an effective means of birth control.

If you’re a sucker for costume dramas, then you’ll enjoy Victoria. If you have my odd fascination with Dead Royal Nitwits, you will find a great deal to divert you here. 

And if your were a fan of Downton Abbey you’re sure to love it. God knows the entire production was desperate to make sure you did.

Images courtesy of ITV

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