by writer Julian Fellowes
When I first heard that Graham King and Martin Scorsese were interested in making a film about the early life of Queen Victoria, I knew I had to be the one to write it. I cannot remember pursuing a project as ardently as I pursued this one.
My reason was that I had been interested in the subject for many years before I even dreamed of being a screenwriter. I had become aware, as quite a young man, of the extraordinary, but largely unknown, contrast between the popular image of the famous Queen, old and plump, always dressed in black, always frowning, and the reality of the young woman who succeeded her uncle on the Throne of England in 1837. This woman was passionate, in both love and rage; she was wild about music and opera and dancing; she adored her husband and had fights with him that made the Palace shake; she had also survived the childhood from hell.
When I started to have conversations with Graham's office, I was anxious that we should begin the story early enough to reflect what Victoria had survived before she came to power. The original idea, conceived by the Duchess of York, had embraced the image of Victoria the wife, the point being that we were all aware of the gloom of her widowhood, but not of the joy of her marriage, all of which I fully endorsed. But I felt that, in addition, it was crucial to show that she came to the Crown as the battered and bruised victim in an abusive household. Happily, Graham was of the same opinion.
Victoria's mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent, had fallen under the spell of an Irish adventurer, Sir John Conroy, who in his turn saw the possibilities of dominating this essentially vulnerable and foolish woman and thereby controlling her child, the future Queen. Nobody thought King William IV would live beyond Victoria's tenth birthday, and Conroy's plan was to govern the country through the Duchess, who would be made Regent for her daughter, and thereby amass a considerable fortune, together with titles, estates, and all the rest of it, for himself. But unfortunately for him, the King lived on, and on, and on, and on. By the time Victoria was approaching her eighteenth birthday and her majority, Conroy had become almost hysterical. He cajoled and bullied and threatened the two women, mother and daughter, to a degree that must have been terrifying to witness. How Victoria, young as she was, withstood his threats is a minor miracle. All this, the unknown story of a well-known figure, would provide a terrific first act for the film.
Then comes the period when she ruled alone although, ironically, released from Conroy's cage, she immediately fell under the influence of a very different character, the consummate politician, courtier and flatterer, Lord Melbourne. Determined as she was to have her own way, she was bedazzled by this sophisticate, who paid her all the attention of which she had been starved, and in the process manipulated her into a situation for his benefit, which could only blow up in her face. This duly happened in the constitutional crisis of 1839, when the Queen, still a young girl, brought the Government down on Melbourne's behalf and provoked the capital to riots. Here we have Victoria's learning curve, a very steep one let it be said, providing us with our second act. Naturally, by the time the mobs were raging outside Buckingham Palace, it was time for Prince Albert to arrive, which, in life and in our film, he duly did and does.
Albert and Victoria provide us with one of the greatest, and truest, love stories in history. Since both her uncle and her mother had tried to arrange the marriage, Victoria initially resisted it, but, in the end, she was forced to recognise that Albert was ideal for her, that they were, in short, perfectly suited and complementary characters. Albert was a committed reformer, a genuine intellectual, a master of detail. Victoria was what is now called a "people person," at ease with every type, completely unsnobbish, outgoing, affectionate and popular. Together, they were an unbeatable pair. But first, like many couples, they had to go through their teething pains. After so many years under virtual house arrest, Victoria was reluctant to share power, even with a husband she loved as much as this one. Albert, on the other hand, saw that there was a great deal he could contribute to the national life—if she would only allow him to do so. This difference of opinion provided the Royal couple with much shouting and slamming doors for the first year of the marriage, until an incident in 1840 seems suddenly and absolutely to have changed the Queen's mind. Within a few days of its occurring, she had reversed her position totally and ordered Albert's desk to be brought into her sitting room and placed next to hers. From then on, for the next twenty years until Albert's death, they reigned in unison. Quite what the incident was, I shall not detail here as I very much want you to watch the film, but it brought a realisation on her part that Albert loved her more than his own life. And, in case there is any doubt, he behaved in real life just as he behaves in the film. His love for her is documentary truth.
To serve this story, Graham King and Martin Scorsese chose the French Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who brings a wonderfully non-conformist vision, uncluttered by reverence or British television tradition, to the material. Enhancing the movie's glory, he assembled an extraordinary cast, among them Paul Bettany (Melbourne), Miranda Richardson (the Duchess of Kent), Jim Broadbent (King William IV), Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide) and at its heart the beautiful and brilliant Emily Blunt and the marvellous Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert. It is testimony to their talent and to the, to me, remarkable chemistry between them, that, despite the heavyweight excellence of the actors surrounding them, the picture is always theirs, their love story is the heart of the narrative.
I have enjoyed working on this film as much as any writer has ever enjoyed anything. Now I enjoy watching it. I very much hope you will, too.