Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Young Victoria's Secret: Michael Palin Trumps Emily Blunt

So we watched The Young Victoria last night, the underwhelming 2009 period piece starring Emily Blunt as the United Kingdom's iconic 19th-century queen. Sure, she made a beautiful Victoria—far more attractive than the real Victoria—but for my money, Blunt cannot hold the proverbial candle to Michael Palin in portraying England's longest-reigning monarch.

In Monty Python's Flying Circus Episode 41, "Michael Ellis," Michael Palin portrays a spirited, if culturally confused, Queen Victoria (seen here with her late husband, Albert, the Prince Consort). In fairness to Emily Blunt, Palin's Victoria is certainly not the Queen of The Young Victoria's youth, yet it is a more honest, realistic, and geopolitically consequential version. Palin plays her with the masculine verve that so defined the stuffy, sexless age we call Victorian. More importantly, Palin bravely infuses his queen with Germanic tendencies that epitomize Victoria's tangled cultural lineage, lest we forget that she sprang from the Teutonic House of Hanover and herself became progenitor to many future European rulers, including Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, and, of course, Great Britain's George V—second cousins who would feud catastrophically in the First World War. When Palin's Victoria slips seamlessly from English into German, we are confronted with the hard truth that England and Germany—destined to rival for control of Europe—are deeply tied by blood, which will, over the coming years, muddle sympathies and affect both the course of poetry and politics. None of this can be gleaned from Blunt's pristinely Anglican Victoria. Frankly, one can hardly envision Blunt's Victoria curdling her nose at the recent soiling of the Victorian Poetry Reading Hall carpet and uttering Was ist das schreckliche Gepong? Es schmecke wie ein Scheisshaus! with any conviction.

Like all of the Pythons, Palin thrived playing female characters. His Victoria is Prussian and assertive without sacrificing English matronly compassion. When Palin's Victoria declares ant-themed poetry verboten, it is to be replaced with the more feminine themes of "skylarks, daffodils, nightingales, and light brigades." I'd be hard-pressed to believe Blunt's Victoria had she delivered such a royal decree!

Perhaps this is not a fair comparison. Sure, Emily Blunt is a Golden Globe–winning actress—but Michael Palin and the Pythons rank among the finest actors in the annals of television and film. It is no wonder that I also prefer Graham Chapman's "Erizabeth" (Monty Python Episode 29) to even the supremely talented Cate Blanchett's virgin queen. Blanchett portrays Elizabeth with a near-perfect balance of virginal sex appeal and icy integrity, yet it is Chapman who transcends the role, maintaining remarkable dignity whilst Erizabeth's closest advisors sit atop motorized bicycles and everyone, including Her Majesty, speaks Japanese pidgin English. This is not an Elizabeth whose reign is predictably defined by the Armada, but who defines herself by changing with the anachronous times and embracing the premature industrialization of her kingdom.

Yes, Emily Blunt and Cate Blanchett are gifted and gorgeous jewels in Hollywood's realm, but I'll take Michael Palin and the late Graham Chapman as England's on-screen queens—for without a Python in drag...we are not amused. God bless you alles!