STAGE TO SCREENS: Recovering Tennessee Williams' "Teardrop Diamond," Plus "Young Victoria"

By Harry Haun
02 Jan 2010

Julian Fellowes and the poster for "The Young Victoria"
Julian Fellowes, who's represented on Broadway these days as the book writer of Mary Poppins, was an actor until he was 53 years old when "Gosford Park" abruptly and forevermore turned him into a screenwriter and Oscar-winner.

What a difference a little gold man makes in one's life! At the time director Robert Altman put in his order for an English country manor murder mystery, Fellowes was in the middle of a four-year BBC series, a Scottish laird lording over "Monarch of the Glen." Now, if he goes near a camera, it's to direct a script he wrote ("Separate Lies" with Tom Wilkinson or the upcoming "From Time to Time" with Maggie Smith).

Mostly, though, he's content to sit at his computer and slog out scripts for others to execute. His current Exhibit A-film, "The Young Victoria," examines the never-before-told much-less-suspected early years of England's longest-reigning monarch. It was helmed by a French-Canadian director, for some reason Jean-Marc Vallee but the "Masterpiece Theatre" stiff-upper-lip manners are a constant.

For producers, Fellowes had some pretty strange bedfellows: Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Martin Scorsese, Master of Mean Streets. It was "Fergie" who suggested the Albert-Victoria love story, and it was Scorsese's producing partner, Graham King, who pitched the premise to Fellowes. "I knew there was a movie in it," said the screenwriter, who'd already researched the subject thoroughly and knew it wasn't the movie being proposed. With a little diplomatic jiggling, he got the others to agree to switching the emphasis to Victoria's difficult, character-building struggle to ascend to the throne at age 18 before The Right Man entered her life.

This approach of a headstrong, take-charge heroine made her attractively accessible to a contemporary audience, and Emily Blunt's spirited title performance did much to banish the universal image of Queen Victoria as a dour and dumpy dowager in lace-trimmed widow's weeds. "She's very hard-working, Emily is," conceded Fellowes. "She had worked out how she wanted to play the part." Her portrayal of Victoria the woman falls somewhere to the right of Vicki the Vixen Queen.

Our first view of Victoria is quite the opposite a super-protected teen, imprisoned by the protocol forced on her by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), herself manipulated by Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), a power-hungry politician bucking to become Victoria's regent. Happily or not happily, Victoria's uncle, William IV (Jim Broadbent), dies just in the neck of time, enabling her to take charge of her life and her country and give the royal gate to all who hold her back.

Fellowes didn't set out to write a film that sits well with the royals but it does. "I think the monarchy is a good thing, although I wouldn't have wanted to write a film that ridiculed it or made out it was a bad thing so, in a sense, that comes from me.

"I think it was a pretty dramatic story," he continued. "One minute she's bullied and chucked around, the next minute she's queen, the next minute she's provoking a revolution all that is pretty natural film material. Queen Victoria was a very interesting person the country was lucky to have her so I wasn't wrestling with my desire to denigrate her as oppose to praise her. I don't think inherently she was a bad person inexperienced and young, but I don't think she was ever a bad person."

Enter belatedly Albert, her Germanic first cousin, played with a reasonable physical facsimile by Rupert Friend. "He's terribly like him," admitted Fellowes. "Prince Albert was fantastically handsome. He didn't look like Rupert, but he looked sorta like Terence Stamp that kind of very dark, very dramatic, very good-looking. Early drawings of Albert when he first came to the court are astonishingly like Rupert."

Truth to tell, Albert only came to court once when he met Victoria. What followed was three years of love letters, which Fellowes translated into love scenes from the actual correspondence. There were lots of princes attending Victoria's coronation so the screenwriter took the dramatic license of sneaking Albert into the proceedings for some up-close quality time. The arranged-marriage proposal soon followed.

There were five assassination attempts on Victoria's life on the way to her diamond jubilee. Fellowes only deals with the first because it profoundly affects the love story but he does fudge a tad. As he tells it, Albert threw himself in front of the wannabe assassin's bullet, protecting his wife but getting grazed in the shoulder in the process. "The only thing that I altered was that the bullet missed him," he said.

"When I was talking about this to the British press, I made the incredibly stupid assumption that they would know that the assassination attempt had happened. Of course, they didn't. They thought I was creating the whole incident, which I wasn't.

"They were coming down Constitution Hill. The guy, Edward Oxford, pulled out his gun. Albert saw it, Victoria didn't, and Albert pushed her down. The important thing for me was that Albert covered her body with his own. He put his back to the gunman. All of that is completely true. Only because of my own idiocy, I have The Times saying, 'Oh, he has converted Prince Albert into an action man.' I didn't.

"Of course, it is only just after that as in the film that she decided, after fighting it for a year, she changed her mind about letting him come into her work and had the desk brought through and put next to hers, and all that stuff, which is all in the film.

"I cannot believe because it did happen, literally ten days later she was not influenced by the realization that he was, if necessary, was prepared to die for her."

The marriage lasted 20 years, till Albert's death hence, the lingering image of the dressed-in-black Victoria. She also kept his dressing room in the state it was when he died, with clothes laid out for him. "That was her eccentricity," Fellowes said.

And is he pleased with the accuracy that emerged in this dramatic re-creation? "Given the fact that you have to get the events of four years into an hour and 40 minutes, I am pleased that we have got so much of the true story into the film, yes."