BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 4, 2010
The Young Victoria
The Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu shows once again that, for him, film is a means of looking at an idea. The operative word is “looking.” The subtitles of Police, Adjective convey that his dialogue is reasoned and seasoned, but it rarely seems primary. Chiefly, it enhances what we are watching. Ideas are hardly a novelty in films, but some such works present their ideas visually, as do Porumboiu’s.
He provides just enough plot to assure us that he hasn’t forgotten about it. His characters, in their less than spectacular way, encounter just enough action to support the attention he gives them.
His first feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest, took place in a TV studio in a small town where a talk-show host was trying to celebrate the departure of Nicolae Ceauşescu sixteen years earlier. The apathy and evasions he met in the people he invited as guests resulted in funny dull stretches of the film and vivified a basic idea: most people’s political ideal, as this host found, is not to participate in possible glory but to be left alone.
Police, Adjective promises, with cool deception, more of a story. At the start a youth comes out of a house into an empty street and walks away. A man then comes around a corner and follows him. Tailing! A police thriller! Well, it certainly is a police story, as it turns out, but it is mostly about the detective and the idea of being one.
The place is a town called Vaslui, the director’s birthplace, and he has chosen to focus on some shabby poured-concrete sections. Every exterior shot is under a gray sky. In fact, the atmosphere is so drab and the detective is pouring his day into such small-scale work that the film soon acquires a patina of humor--without anything like a laugh. Through meetings with bosses and hours of spying, we learn that the detective has been ordered to tail this youth to track down the distribution of hashish to a few high school students. The subject is not trifling: still, the intense police activity seems disproportionate.
Ultimately, underlying this inflation, the reticent film discloses two themes. First, there is a conflict in Cristi, the detective, between morality and legality. The police chief wants him to set up a sting operation to trap the youth. Cristi says, and his chief even agrees, that the law regarding hashish will soon be changed. If they carry out the sting, they will have sent a youth to prison for seven years under a law that will be repealed while he is in prison. The chief tries to show Cristi, actually by defining words with a dictionary, that he is bound to the legality as it is. The film’s last shot reveals the detective’s decision about the sting.
But beneath this police drama, there is a larger theme: time--specifically, attitudes toward time. From beginning to end, this picture contravenes the usual handling of time in film. Cristi’s waiting--for the suspect to move, for various officials to see him--suggests that he himself has been altered by his work. His job, its routine, has so possessed him that the normal view of time and its passage has been altered. Jobs of every kind--not only in Romania-impose straits on individuals that alter them, consciously or not. Here it is the concept of time that is changed. I doubt that any film has ever been made that contains more waiting, sheer waiting. We often wait along with Cristi while he waits for the suspect to move.
Most telling is a scene with his chief. When Cristi and a colleague go to see him with a report, an assistant in the waiting room tells the chief on the phone that they are there, and the chief asks her to bring in the report so that he can read it before he talks to them. She takes it in while Cristi and colleague wait--simply wait--until the chief, off-screen, has read the report and admits them. The wait is never tedious for us, because the idea of doing such a thing in a film has to be either stupid, which this could not be, or meaningful, and here the meaning almost saddens us. We sense that, for Cristi, his job has become a kind of refuge. A basic view of time has been arranged for him. Time, as the stuff of life, as the medium of experience, as a source of possibility, has been tamed.
In a way this theme is akin to that of Porumboiu’s previous film. There he showed how reluctant many people are to disturb their lives with true political commitment. Here he shows us an acceptance of time-patterns that will, in any large sense, protect this man against new transformative experience--even though a detective’s life is less placid than, say, a shoe clerk’s. (He is lately married, and what we see of his domestic self is mostly in the temper of his professional self.) We can almost sense gratitude in Cristi. He has achieved what he apparently desired: a snuggle into status quo.
The title of the picture comes from a dictionary definition that is quoted in the chief’s office. Like the title of Porumboiu’s first feature, this one is a warning, a signal that the picture will be eccentric. He confirms this by casting, as Cristi, Dragos Bucur, an actor who reports for his role as the detective reports for work. The chief is strikingly played by Vlad Ivanov, who was the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. As for Porumboiu, without flamboyant cinematics he is creating a cinematic style by means of his intellect. A different sort of stimulation, not conventional excitement, is what he is after. Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits left out. With this director, some of the dull bits are left in, but the tedium is both bitterly funny and an instance of comfy submission.
Except for Napoleon and Elizabeth I, Victoria is probably the monarch about whom the greatest number of plays and films have been written. Why this concentration on her? One reason, of course, is the length of her reign, sixty-four years--a reign that saw seismic changes in society, in politics and religion, in styles of living. In the perspective of art, Victoria reigned from the height of romanticism to the surge of modernism. Those factors provide excellent settings for all kinds of drama. (Also, there may be a sort of Max Beerbohm drawing in our heads--a tiny woman and her great, growing empire. “She must have been a very little lady,” says a boy watching her funeral cortege in Noël Coward’s Cavalcade.) Smugly, too, we sometimes like to gloat over the primness of Victoria’s time, even though historians have been correcting that view for decades. Now The Young Victoria attempts to correct that primness about the monarch herself.
In 1997, Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, through Judi Dench’s exquisite performance, winked at the behavior of the elderly queen with her groom John Brown--intimate enough to get her the sly title of the picture. But no kind of intimacy was actually shown. The title of this new film teases otherwise and keeps its word. The story runs from her ascension to her firstborn: her romance and marriage are the core of the picture.
When a producer chooses to make a period film susceptible of magnificence, we can believe that the first person he engages--at least it looks that way--is not the director or the star but the costume designer. We know before The Young Victoria begins that it is going to look gorgeous. And so it does: the costumes by Sandy Powell, who did Shakespeare in Love, satisfy an appetite that is almost physical. She is warmly aided by the camera of Hagen Bogdanski, who did The Lives of Others. He makes many scenes look as if candles and lamps really were the light. The screenplay by Julian Fellowes is as flexed as it can be within the corset of facts. Particularly he decks his script throughout with a decor of gossip--the whisperings and conspirings and assumptions of the relatives and courtiers. The cast helps, with some wonderfully noble ladies and gentlemen--especially Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne--who provide an obeisance to history.
Because of the film’s title, and though the opening sequences are lively, we await the arrival of Prince Albert. Rupert Friend is the Albert we have been wanting to meet. He convinces early on that Victoria’s attraction for him is genuine. His attraction for her needs to pass no tests: he charms pretty quickly. She is played by Emily Blunt, who of course is prettier than Victoria was but not disturbingly so. Blunt is adequately regal, without being unduly dominant.
The romance is figuratively and literally danced between them: Albert even takes dancing lessons. The marriage occurs, and then come the scenes for which the film probably was made. She and Albert are in bed together, lying side by side. Then, in her nightdress, she lies on him. That is all. Still--in Windsor Castle! Next, he is kneeling before her, putting a stocking on her leg. Suddenly he pulls it off. She is puzzled. He says they are going back to bed, and she giggles. Windsor Castle or not, they did have nine children.
Albert died at forty-two of typhoid. (It’s an English schoolboy joke that the typhoid was a cover story: he really died of excessive marital demands.) The picture ends with their firstborn. It could have ended with their fourth or seventh: the script’s structure simply follows the course of things until it stops.
Politics gets its nod. Victoria utters some pieties about helping her poorer subjects when she becomes queen. We are also given some vivid footage of the Chartist riots in the 1840s. A rock goes through a window of Buckingham Palace, and a man fires at the queen as she rides past with Albert in an open carriage. (During her reign, there were six more assassination attempts.) Albert throws himself across her and takes the bullet in his arm. But the political moments are there just so that they won’t be missing.
The music, arranged by Maureen Crowe, is always apt. (When the royal pair are courting, Albert mentions that he particularly likes Schubert. Victoria, agreeing but careful not to fawn, says, “I don’t mind Schubert.”) The direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, a French-Canadian who has made one previous feature, is deft and appreciative: we feel that he really likes the people he is handling. Last, a word of thanks to the ever-welcome Jim Broadbent, whose brief appearance as Victoria’s predecessor, William IV, gives the picture a pleasant touch of nuttiness.