It’s hard to imagine a less likely candidate to direct an adoring costume drama about British royalty. Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée is best known for writing and directing C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), a movie drenched with rock ’n’ roll about a working-class teenager discovering his homosexuality in a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of East End Montreal. Until recently, Vallée’s only romantic notion of sovereignty lay in the dream of Quebec independence, which he still supports, calling himself “a soft indépendantiste.” But an odd couple of producers—Martin Scorsese and Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York—recruited him to direct The Young Queen Victoria, a coming-of-age story about the wilful teen who became England’s longest-reigning monarch. And he has pulled it off with remarkable grace.
Scorsese discovered C.R.A.Z.Y. through his producing partner, Graham King (The Departed), who says he felt it was “Scorsese-ish,” and Scorsese agreed. “They didn’t consider my origins or my nationality,” Vallée told Maclean’s last week. “They just said, ‘Okay, we love this film. We feel this guy could do something classic but at the same time give it a modern edge.’ ” Speaking by phone from an airport lounge—en route to Paris to shoot a TV insurance ad with Charlotte Rampling—the 46-year-old director said he’d been wading through scripts for a year and a half before hitting upon The Young Victoria, which was penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park).
“It was a challenge for me, and that’s why I wanted to make it,” Vallée explains. “It’s so much out of my world. I wasn’t attracted by the royal family. But once I had to make a film on them, I became curious to learn about their world and be faithful to what they are. We don’t have this in Quebec, and this respect for tradition and rituals.”
With Emily Blunt heading a distinguished retinue of British talent, The Young Victoria illuminates a little-known chapter in the life of a queen who tends to be portrayed as a black-frocked dowager in perpetual mourning—her husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid at 42. The story unfolds as a tender, awkward romance between Victoria (Blunt) and Albert (Rupert Friend) as she prepares to inherit the throne from her ailing uncle, the cantankerous King William IV (Jim Broadbent). As conniving opportunists vie for her favour, including a mother she despises (Miranda Richardson), the royal teen finds an ally in Lord Melbourne, the prime minister (Paul Bettany). And by her coronation, at 19, she’s begun to carve out her independence as a shrewd player—to the point that Albert, who marries her the next year, comes to resent his irrelevance. With pre-feminist largesse, Victoria lets him throw himself into management, reorganizing the palace staff.
As a fable about a teenager at odds with a dysfunctional family, The Young Victoria is not so removed from Vallée’s previous film as it might seem. “Thematically, it’s similar,” he says, “but in a completely different culture, class, period and setting.” C.R.A.Z.Y. has its own visual opulence, one that’s psychedelic rather than palatial. And it’s not surprising the film struck a chord with Scorsese.
Valleé shares the American director’s flair for staging dramatic pageantry to classic rock songs, notably by the Rolling Stones.
For Victoria, Vallée didn’t go as far as Sofia Coppola, who used contemporary pop to score Marie Antoinette. But he did play rock music on the set to get his actors in the mood as they filmed in various English castles and palaces. He also gave his stars pop songs to inform their roles, including Frank Sinatra’s The Best is Yet to Come for Bettany’s Melbourne and Cat Stevens’s Trouble for Blunt’s Victoria. Yet Vallée insists he was a stickler for period detail—even if he did take poetic licence in having Albert take a bullet to save Victoria from an assassination attempt. “Bottom line, this film is a romance,” he says. “It didn’t happen that way, but Albert stood up in front of her and was ready to take the bullet.”
Vallée says he’s been transformed by his brush with royalty. “I was never a tough Quebecer who resents the monarchy,” he says. “I wasn’t an Anglo-basher. It’s like I didn’t care. Now I can say I have respect for the establishment they represent, even though they’re born rich and live in palaces.” So far he’s had no flak from Quebec, where he’s still beloved as the man who made C.R.A.Z.Y.
Meanwhile, though he can’t divulge details, he says he’s just struck a major directing deal with Hollywood—and that’s where the real royalty lies.