Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.31.09


From Ballrooms to Boxing Rings
Victorian England, refined and gritty
by Molly Templeton

THE YOUNG VICTORIA: Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Julian Fellowes. Cinematography, Hagen Bogdanski. Editors, Jill Bilcock and Matt Garner. Music, Ilan Eshkeri. Starring Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong and Jim Broadbent. Apparition, 2009. PG. 100 minutes.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: Directed by Guy Ritchie. Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg; screen story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Cinematography, Philippe Rousselot. Editor, James Herbert. Music, Hans Zimmer. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009. PG-13. 128 minutes.

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in The Young Victoria

If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the names and titles of the participants in 1830s English court intrigue, you may want to pause for a quick Google before watching The Young Victoria. The film, which falters slightly with its poor-little-rich-girl introduction (justified as it may be), quickly introduces sirs and lords and dukes and duchesses who populate its frames, and at first it is all dreadfully important: Will Victoria (Emily Blunt) be able to resist the controlling force of her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother’s conniving adviser, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong)? When she is queen, who will challenge the influence kind and wily Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) has on her? Which of the handsome young fellows with the Fleet Foxes haircuts is actually the future Prince Albert (that’d be Rupert Friend, the blonder one)? Was King William (Jim Broadbent) really as grumpy as that?

Soon after Victoria (Emily Blunt, calm and graceful) ascends the throne, however, it becomes quite clear that the most important court machinations, in the story writer Julian Fellowes and director Jean-Marc Vallée are telling, are those that concern the matter of marriage. The intrigue is good fun, as it often appears a bit absurd from this remove (the mayhem caused by the queen’s refusal to dismiss and replace a few ladies in waiting is historically quite real, yet seems ridiculous in the film). But it’s simply here for background, and to set up the relationship between Victoria and Albert, the one man who truly wants to assist rather than control her. He’s the one to suggest she master the games played by politicians and courtiers, rather than taking advice from those who have already done so; he’s the one who says she should find a husband who will play these games with her, not for her. 

Obviously, no other suitor stands a chance, and thankfully the film doesn’t pretend otherwise. It sweeps us through impossibly golden-lit ballrooms, an extravagant coronation, a few taut dinners and some lengthy strolls through perfectly controlled English gardens not in order to give a history lesson, but to consider the more intimate balance and shift of power occasioned by Victoria’s marriage. The Young Victoria flits through multiple courts, looking only briefly at the ordinary English population (about whom Victoria often worries, asking whose job it is to look after them). But only as the film glides to its (somewhat embellished) end does it find a greater idea that sets it apart from the other nice, well-designed, solidly acted but vaguely unsatisfying period pieces of the last few years (The Duchess, Becoming Jane, Amazing Grace). When Victoria and Albert marry, the power the queen fought so quietly and tirelessly to maintain becomes something to share; Albert becomes not a consort but a partner. Sharing responsibilities and balancing control doesn’t come to them instantly. The bumps on the road to the throne were temporary; the bumps in figuring out a lasting partnership, far less so.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes

It’s a delightful shock to move from the gilded privilege of Queen Victoria’s London to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes takes place in a London slightly less long ago but equally far away, which is to say Guy Ritchie’s London: grubby, gritty, brown and gray, occasionally damaged by mediocre CGI and always splashed with black-robed bad guys and the extraordinarily lovely suits of its heroes. Sherlock Holmes is not for everyone, but it is a movie for those of us who like our heroes dressed as more Victorian versions of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who cannot get enough tweed, waitcoats, pert hats, bustles, steam-powered innovations and witty remarks. There is enough witty banter here to supply several lesser movies, and most of it passes ever so charmingly between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., a disheveled delight) and Watson (Jude Law, playing a delicious straight man to Downey’s cranky, manic genius). Their unexpected chemistry carries the film; Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong, the current go-to Evil English Guy, both offer reliably able assists, but the proceedings drag a bit when either Law or Downey Jr. is offscreen. 

Thankfully, their absences are infrequent. Sherlock Holmes has a ridiculous and entertaining plot involving one Lord Blackwood (Strong) and his plan to take over the world (starting with England). It’s enough story to send Holmes and Watson ricocheting around London, destroying shipyards, poking through laboratories full of dead things, avoiding getting killed, looking dapper, bickering and occasionally rescuing a fair maiden or two. Their personal lives are complicated by Watson’s fiancée, whose presence Holmes petulantly resents, and by Irene Adler (McAdams), a whip-smart American who has a past with Sherlock. She seems a bit young for him, but Adler’s slipperiness — hidden behind a sweet and beguiling smile, the way the sleeves of her gorgeous gowns hide the occasional weapon — is a good match for his intellect, which works over everything, every detail, until the pieces fit together and Holmes has a chance to deliver one of many rather Bond-villain-esque speeches in which he explains what the hell is going on. 

Ritchie has a knack for capturing and encouraging dry banter (even when it’s scripted by a handful of writers) and here he also shows an eye for lush interiors (the elaborate production design is by Sarah Greenwood, who also did Atonement). His movies share a sense of ferocious glee, a mapcap feeling that keeps things interesting even when the action on screen stumbles (as it does from time to time, particularly when fight scenes play out in a muddle of disconnected swinging fists and landed punches). Sherlock is a mite shallow, but the frenetic charm of Downey Jr. and Law — as they play endlessly, affectionately, sincerely against each other — gives just enough weight and spark to the rest of the proceedings. If the last few minutes are only there to open the door for the sequel, take heart: A name dropped just before the end is at least enough to suggest that next time, Holmes will have a nemesis worthy of his brilliance.



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