Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria. As soon as those words were put together, ITV must have known they were on to something special. Coleman, after stealing the show from Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who – no mean feat in itself – is sensational in the spotlight, bringing us a young Victoria as we haven’t really seen her before: Coleman manages to be regal and determined, but also childish and petulant; she’s composed yet naive; confident but uncertain. She has a crown in one hand – and a doll with a crown on it in the other.
It’s a tricky balance to pull off, but Coleman excels, perfecting a stern gaze that counters her girlish smirks and flouncing arms; within the first couple of episodes, we’ve already seen her storm out of rooms and get drunk at her coronation ball. It’s a refreshingly fun take on a familiar monarch, giving us a glimpse of vulnerability behind the iron exterior – ironically, the immaturity on display only confirms Coleman’s growing maturity as an actor.
It’s even more impressive, given the dialogue that she has to deliver. “From now on, I want to be called Victoria,” she declares, choosing to get rid of her given name. “Queen Victoria,” comes the reply from her loyal Prime Minister and private secretary, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell).
Rufus Sewell is the show’s secret weapon: the second half of a lead couple that crackles with chemistry. He’s charismatic, witty and polite to a fault – not a bad achievement either, given we last saw him as a Nazi in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sewell’s hands, Melbourne is undoubtedly more attractive than he was in real life, but he manages to be more than just eye candy: his mild flirting with the Queen accompanies a paternal concern not just for her wellbeing, but also that of the state; he seems sincere at all times, but so sincere that you can’t help but question the motivation behind his controlling hand.
Gossip, of course, spreads through the court – and it’s in these moments where ITV’s series slips somewhat, as it concocts a Downton Abbey-like upstairs/downstairs set-up, with Eve Myles’ chief dresser and Adrian Schiller’s eyebrow-raising steward, Penge, commenting on the action as it goes. The arrival of Nell Hudson’s Skerrett, a servant and seamstress of supposedly good repute, brings some narrative oomph beneath the steps, and there are laughs to be had, but despite the top-notch cast, the downstairs often feels like padding.
That, however, is mainly due to how engaging the upstairs half of the plot is. Writer Daisy Godwin covers a deceptive amount in just eight hours, always using each political crisis or historical milestone to develop the character of her leading lady. Victoria takes the Newport Rising in her stride, commuting death sentences in a way that is governed by compassion not convention. See also her treatment of the Duke of Sussex, whose wife was (scandal!) not allowed at court because she was not of royal birth.
The supporting ensemble are excellent and, as Lord M fades more into the background, they relish the chance to shine, from Paul Rhys’ manipulative John Conroy, who longs to have M’s role of Victoria’s confidante, to the magnificent Peter Firth as Victoria’s uncle, the calculating Duke of Cumberland. Victoria’s mother works with them both to try and discredit Victoria where possible, before ultimately pushing her towards marriage. And that’s where the show really kicks into gear, as Prince Albert comes on the scene.
Of course, we already know that the pair will end up together, but ITV’s drama acknowledges their inevitable union and instead uses that to drive tension: both suitors push against this imposed match, having arguments, spats and repeatedly dismissing and offending each other whenever they get the chance.
Their love-hate romance has to turn swiftly enough to reach wedded bliss within six episodes and it’s testament to the couple’s chemistry that it does – and does so with genuine satisfaction. Tom Hughes is superb, never letting himself be outshone by Coleman, without stopping this from being her show: he’s petty, kind, stubborn, sweet, angry, understanding and does it all with a moustache. Given an allowance that’s less than his Uncle Leopold, he bristles and complains, without compromising his moral integrity – his lothario brother makes it clear that Albert is cut of nicer cloth. (Speaking of Albert’s family, it’s hugely entertaining just to watch a group of Germans get outraged at every possible oportunity.)
Throughout, the series smartly, and subtly, skews our sympathies towards the next wave of important players, as Nigel Lindsay’s Sir Robert Peel gradually bonds with Albert. Hughes, meanwhile, gets just enough screentime on his own, including a rewarding subplot surrounding a speech on the abolition of slavery, and a winning diversion into a sequence involving trains. Together, then, their eventually happy union is just that – some of the most enjoyable moments in the show are when they play a heated piano duet together, or ride a locomotive.
In fact, they’re so good together that you eventually make peace with the fact that Lord Melbourne has largely been brushed aside. Because more than a romantic drama, Victoria works best as a coming-of-age story; it’s a joy simply to watch a young woman fight back against the adults around her (including the delightfully icy Danila Holtz as Baroness Lehzen). Coleman’s charming enthusiasm is enough to sweep you up in the whole thing, over the occasionally bumpy script and the intrusive music (tip: skip the opening and closing credits), and across the lovely sets to the throne room. Goodwin injects some political intrigue, as the Duke of Cumberland is linked to an assassination attempt, but the biggest threat is impending motherhood and the complications it will bring for this monarch still finding her feet. What we know for sure is that whatever Season 2 will throw at her, Jenna Coleman is more than its match.
Victoria is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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