Friday, December 8, 2017

Catherine Reef's "Victoria: Portrait of a Queen"

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Here Reef dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest young adult biography, Victoria: Portrait of a Queen:
It is autumn 1861, and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, is a student at Cambridge. Away from his parents and palace life, the future king, then called Bertie, is happy. He has been enjoying love—or at least sex—with an actress named Nellie Clifden. Suddenly he is confronted by his father, Prince Albert. It seems word of Bertie’s romance has reached Buckingham Palace, and the prince consort has come to admonish. The two take a long walk in the rain, and Albert informs Bertie that the affair must end, and that he must marry a suitable woman. This is Albert’s decision as well as the queen’s. So the film begins.

Bertie resists, and Prince Albert—well, Albert gets sick. As happened often in nineteenth-century literature and lore, exposure to wet weather has given him a cold. Albert, however, was already ill with an unknown ailment, and on December 13, Bertie is summoned to his father’s bedside. Prince Albert, father of nine and beloved of the queen, dies the next day.

Now viewers encounter Queen Victoria in her imposing, unreasonable majesty. Needing someone to blame for Albert’s untimely death at forty-two, she singles out the heir to the throne. She rejects Bertie’s offers of comfort, asserting that if he had not caused his father distress by pursuing a loose woman, Prince Albert would still be alive. Such cruel, unfair blame is a heavy burden for a grieving youth to bear.

Unlike my book, which tells Queen Victoria’s life story from beginning to end, my movie is in the tradition of Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul, and focuses on the queen’s relationship with one person, in this instance her oldest son. From his childhood she had resented Bertie’s averageness and tried to mold him into the brilliant, morally stellar young man she wished he could be. There are flashbacks to his early years, when Bertie is forced to study six days a week and forbidden to see other children. Subsequent scenes delve into the difficult relationship of mother and son after Albert’s death: the audience sees, for example, Victoria sending Bertie on an extended trip to the Middle East so she can avoid sight of him; her insistence, upon his engagement, that his future mother-in-law be told about Nellie Clifden; her clear preference for Arthur, her seventh child.

Then comes the dramatic climax of the film, the revealing scene in which viewers see a different side of Queen Victoria. In November 1871, Bertie falls ill with typhoid fever. As the Prince of Wales lies near death, blame and faultfinding are forgotten as the queen rushes to his side. She becomes a loving mother wanting only for her son to get well (which he does). Realizing she has been wrong but unwilling to admit it, Victoria will say only that Bertie has changed, that illness has left him gentler and kinder—and she stumbles toward acceptance.

Who have I cast in the leading roles? Kate Winslet plays Queen Victoria. She lacks the real queen’s short stature, but she brings a forceful personality to the part. Paul Dano, who did such a fine job portraying the young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, is my choice for the youthful Bertie, whom he resembles. For the older Bertie, who else but Leonardo DiCaprio?  With a beard he could look the part, and he and Winslet have acted well and famously together.

DiCaprio gets the final scene—and perhaps the final word. The film ends in 1901, with the new king, Edward VII, purging Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace of his late mother’s personal effects. He savors a cigar, because she had forbidden him to smoke in her presence. He is asserting his power in a small way, just as Victoria did in 1837, when as the new queen she dined alone, without her own mother, the Duchess of Kent.

There were those who said Victoria resented her son because she saw too much of herself in him, and possibly they were right. People are complicated, and so are their emotions.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

The Page 69 Test: Frida & Diego.

My Book, The Movie: Noah Webster.

The Page 99 Test: Florence Nightingale.

--Marshal Zeringue