Review: 'Victoria' is your next period drama obsession
This week, a diminutive in stature but large in legacy queen arrives on U.S. TV.
Just as we were looking for our next period drama obsession, Victoria drops into PBS's Masterpiece lineup with a two-episode premiere at 9 p.m. Jan. 15 after a very successful first season in the U.K. The reign of Queen Victoria will always be ripe for dramatizing, including her ascension at just 18, the rapid industrial and cultural changes during her 63 years as monarch and her legendary romance with Prince Albert.
Even set centuries ago, Victoria feels relevant, with a strong heroine (Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman) proving that she is in fact capable of running a country and making her own decisions. It also has much of what you want in a period drama: gorgeous costumes (don't miss the Elizabethan ball period costumes within period costumes in Episode 3), strong personalities influencing historical moments, under-stairs machinations, sweeping romance.
Much of the last doesn't belong to whom you'd expect. Before we can get to Albert (Tom Hughes) in the end of Episode 3, there's Lord M.
Lord Melbourne looms large over the politics of Victoria's reign in the history books and is widely accepted as a father figure, given the 40-year age gap and Victoria's own diary writings.
Here, played by Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) and his villainous cheekbones, he is instead an ill-fated love interest looming large over much of the first season, even after Albert's arrival and all it portends. It's a dramatic romance, to be sure, developing from childish infatuation to palpable tension as both parties struggle with forbidden feelings, but it's also guaranteed to make realists a bit uncomfortable.
It's not a new thing to make screen drama of historical women's grand forgotten romances (think Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen, Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth I), but Victoria and Albert's is already well-known, not to mention the later-life companion alluded to in 1997's Mrs. Brown. The introduction of Lord Melbourne as a suitor to the queen seems superfluous.
All of the effort put into this drummed up romance also leaves very little energy for the actually relevant romance. After a dramatic arrival raises hopes, Albert seems too cold and Victoria's ensuing attraction all too rushed; it takes quite a while for this couple to establish a rhythm.
Along the ride to that royal wedding you know is coming, the series recycles several subplots to the point of exhaustion. Just about every other scene, there's pressure on Victoria to marry, strain in her tempestuous relationship with her mother and questions about her fitness to rule as an 18-year-old woman. There are only so many times I can hear "you need a husband to keep your behavior in check" without my blood pressure rising.
But those constant criticisms create joy in Victoria's overcoming them, growing up and finding her voice as monarch. I literally cheered when she shouts at her mother's adviser, "You will never have me in your pocket!" and pumped a fist when she identifies with Elizabeth I's resolution not to marry (even if you know it won't last and it hints at parallels between Melbourne and Dudley). And I dare you not to nod emphatically when she declares to her dressers that she would rather shave like a man than have to wear a corset.
Those moments, more than anything else, make Victoria a victory.