The Young Victoria begins in 1837, when Victoria (Emily Blunt) is seventeen. She is heir to the throne of her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent), and so is protected to an extraordinary degree. She is not allowed to sleep in a bedroom on her own, but must sleep in her mother’s room. She is not allowed to walk up or down stairs without holding an adult’s hand. And she is not allowed friends. Little wonder that she says, 'A palace can also be a prison.' ‘I dreamt of the time when I would be free.' she reflects. 'I prayed for strength to meet my destiny.’ These are two important themes which shape the next few years of her life. She knows she faces a life of duty, but she wants the freedom to be herself in the midst of it, making her own choices and living by her own values.
Few of us have lives which are so constrained, but freedom is nevertheless a deep longing within every human heart. Many people in our apparently free society feel a lack of freedom, whether through being trapped in an unpleasant work environment, or because of the weight of others’ demands of us, or because of fear. So while our contexts have little similarity with Victoria’s, we instinctively recognise her feeling of being confined and longing to break free. At the same time, western culture also suffers from the exact opposite problem. After decades of pursuing liberty, we find that society contains significant numbers of people who see freedom as an absolute state, with no limits on what we can do or say or be. Victoria may have prayed for freedom, but she would never have dreamt of it in these terms, since she was so aware of her responsibilities. The integrated human life needs both of these in balance.
The king is nearing the end of his life, but he is desperate to stay alive until Victoria is eighteen and able to take the crown. The alternative is a regency, which is precisely what Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), wants. The Duchess is dominated by the Comptroller of her household, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), and they try to force the young princess to sign a regency order, allowing her mother to reign until the princess was twenty-five. Conroy, of course, would be the power behind the throne. Victoria is well aware of their lust for money, status and power, and she despises them. Amazingly, despite being so mollycoddled, Victoria is a very strong character and she flatly refuses to co-operate. She may not have much freedom, but she is adamant that there are some choices she can make.
The other key player in the power struggle, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) – another of Victoria’s uncles – is also scheming to wield influence on the British crown. He wants a marriage between Victoria and his nephew Albert (Rupert Friend). He coaches Albert to make a good impression on her, and arranges for his sister, the Duchess, to invite the young man for a visit.
When Albert arrives, Victoria, for the first time in her life, is able to relate on equal terms to someone of her own age. She quietly asks him a question which is central to her life as it then is: ‘Do you ever feel like a chess piece, being played against your will?’ He advises her to, ‘master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.’ ‘You don’t recommend I find a husband to play it for me?’ she asks, rather teasingly. ‘I should find one to play it with you, not for you,’ Albert replies. There is a strong connection between them, perhaps already a recognition in both of them that they have found their soul mate in each other.
Victoria yearns for companionship as much as she longs for freedom. She is very much alone, despite being surrounded by people. Her father is dead, her mother and Sir John are her enemies, she is denied access to her much-loved uncle, the King, and everyone else is a servant. The one exception is perhaps Baroness Lehzen (Jeanette Hain), her governess, but this is far from the friendship of equals. is an even more fundamental human need, which has been largely denied her. In Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, only our basic physiological requirements and the necessity of safety are more essential to human existence than the need for good relationships.
After he returns home, Victoria and Albert develop their friendship by letter, but the political manoeuvring continues. The Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), charms the princess, promising to be her ally. So when Conroy demands to become Victoria’s private secretary, Melbourne offers instead, and Victoria is quick to accept. He becomes a good friend to her, giving her plenty of advice and captivating her. But the princess doesn’t realise that she has exchanged Conroy’s direct attempts to control her for a more subtle, seductive manipulation. Melbourne clearly genuinely cares for Victoria, but he also wants to further his own ambitions.
The king dies just four weeks after Victoria turns eighteen. Although she now bears many responsibilities, she is finally free to be herself. She is determined to be a good queen, but Melbourne advises her, ‘Never try to do good. It only leads to terrible scrapes.’ Amused, Victoria responds ‘That’s not what is preached from the pulpit.’ ‘That’s why I never go to church,’ he replies. ‘One hears the most extraordinary things.’ Victoria is completely under Melbourne’s spell, and she makes many mistakes, even provoking a major crisis after Melbourne lost to Sir Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) in the elections.
Eventually, Victoria decides that she needs Albert at her side, and they marry in 1840. Although they have some major tensions in their early marriage, they nevertheless adore each other. Director Jean Marc Vallée says, ‘Victoria was lucky enough to find her soul-mate in Albert. There was a mystical quality to their relationship. They were born three months apart and the same mid-wife delivered them both. They wrote the same things in their diaries and although their marriage was arranged, they really fell in love.’ Victoria realises just how deep their love is when an attempt is made on her life (screenwriter Julian Fellowes says that this scene is not quite how it happened in reality - one of two changes he made to the history, the other being Albert’s presence at the coronation). Afterwards, Albert tells her, ‘You are my whole existence and I will love you until my last breath.’
Julian Fellowes says that Victoria had been so starved of normal relationships in her childhood that Albert effectively took on the roles of her father and mother, as well as being her husband, lover and friend. He replaced in a wonderful way all the people she never had in her life, or could never trust. Such complete devotion is a wonderful thing, and perhaps a rare one. Arguably, Victoria should not have placed such a weight of emotional need onto Albert. The tragedy of human existence is that other human beings can let us down, and the more we have invested in them emotionally, the bigger the sense of betrayal when it happens. And people die. But Victoria loved Albert so much that she could not help it, and he loved her so much that he could not resist it. This was why she was so devastated by his early death at the age of 42, after just 21 years of marriage.
However, to argue that she was wrong because it made her pain all the more acute is wrong. Husbands and wives should love each other with the same unreserved abandon, holding nothing back, allowing each other to meet their deep emotional needs. This is how God made us, and this is how he intends marriage to function. Yes, the more we give ourselves to each other, the greater the potential for pain, but more importantly it opens up a far greater experience of joy in unconditional love first. This is what we are made for, not just at a human level but with God himself. This is the one relationship that will not finally end in pain for one or other. This is the one relationship that meets our deepest needs, that brings us the experience of unconditional love, and that brings us true freedom. And it’s a relationship that requires us to give ourselves to fully in order to experience the joy it brings.
Victoria and Albert’s love for each other is not just a touching story. It’s not even just a profoundly significant relationship in British history, shaping the modern monarchy as we now have it. It’s a great example of what love is meant to be.