Category Archives: Period Drama Challenge

The Young Victoria

This is my third review for the 2010 Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera…History!

“Some people are born more fortunate than others,” says Victoria (played by Emily Blunt) in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, but she doesn’t feel fortunate. The teenage Princess is controlled by a strict set of rules implemented by her mother, The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her household comptroller Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). These rules forbid her from sleeping in a room without her mother and from walking down a flight of stairs without an escort to hold her hand. Despite Conroy’s attempts to force the seventeen-year-old Victoria to sign a regency order, which would allow the Duchess of Kent to reign for her underage daughter, Victoria stubbornly refuses to sign away her crown. When she reaches her eighteenth birthday the order becomes obsolete and upon the death of her Uncle King William IV (Jim Broadbent), she is crowned Queen.

Victoria initially delights in the new freedom that being Queen brings, refusing to see Sir John Conroy and having the Duchess’ bed moved from her room. Although pressure is placed on her to marry, she is unwilling to give up her newfound independence and delays a decision, turning instead to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), for advice. Victoria’s unwillingness to lose Melbourne turns public opinion against her though and the Queen decides that she is ready for a partner who will “play the game with” her. This partner is Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend), with whom she falls deeply in love. Both have been pawns in their families’ political aspirations though, and both are strong-willed, resulting in an inevitable clash of character.

Victoria is informed that she is now Queen.

Victoria really did interfere with politics by refusing to appoint Tory-affiliated ladies of the bedchamber. The “bedchamber crisis”, as it was dubbed, occurred when Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister she had become close friends with, resigned from government. Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, was given a chance to form a government but the Queen had appointed Melbourne’s choices as her ladies of the bedchamber, all of whom came from prominent Whig families. She refused to let some of these ladies be replaced with Tory choices, citing her royal prerogative to retain ladies regardless of their political affiliations. Peel believed that this refusal meant he did not have the Queen’s confidence and refused to form a government. The result was that Victoria kept Melbourne in government as her Prime Minister but was criticized mercilessly by the press and hissed at by the people, who called her “Mrs. Melbourne”.

The Young Victoria also depicts King William’s speech at his birthday dinner in which he denounced the Duchess of Kent for her behaviour and for keeping her daughter away from court. Not only is this true, but some of the speech is quoted word for word from what the King reportedly said! The difference lies in the aftermath. In the film the Duchess storms out and Victoria just appears upset, but in reality, Victoria burst into tears and the Duchess remained in the room, sitting next to the King at that so one imagines it made for an awkward meal!

On a lighter note, there is a brief scene in which the Duke of Wellington uses a yo-yo. Much to my surprise, the Duke was reportedly an enthusiast of the toy, although it was then known as a ‘quiz’ or a ‘bandalore’ rather than a ‘yo-yo’.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Although The Young Victoria portrays him as a seducer, it’s worth noting that Lord Melbourne was forty years Victoria’s senior, an age few would guess at in the film given Paul Bettany’s youthful makeup and costuming. Victoria never knew her father and Lord Melbourne had lost his child so it is likely that their relationship was more paternal than romantic.

The only large change comes in an assassination attempt made late in the film that I suspect was added as a dramatic way for Albert and Victoria to reconcile after an argument. Albert is shot defending his wife in the scene and Victoria tearfully reaffirms her love. Although many attempts were made on Victoria’s life throughout her sixty-three year reign, Albert was never wounded during one.

Additionally, Leopold, King of the Belgians, is depicted as a rather one-note schemer. While he certainly did train his nephew to woo Victoria, he was also Victoria’s favourite Uncle and a great influence on her.

My mother, the Grammarian, kindly went to see the film with me even though she doesn’t share my passion for history and she enjoyed it. Part of The Young Victoria‘s appeal is that it has something for everyone. Yes it’s a romance and a period piece, but it also has politics and characters who are relatable in the modern age. It’s largely historically accurate and features stunning costumes and a great cast. Some have criticized Emily Blunt for not looking enough like the Queen, but she has Victoria’s stubbornness and her charms completely. In my opinion, it is Rupert Friend who is the real star of the movie though. His Albert is a Prince that any girl would be glad to have by her side and is obviously loving, but also displays human flaws, showing frustration when he must wait for Victoria to choose him and at her dependence on “Lord M”.

The Young Victoria is a wonderful film that I would recommend to anyone.



Filed under British History, Period Drama Challenge, Victorian

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

This is my second review for the 2010 Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera…History!

Set in rural County Cork, the 2006 Palme D’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley is the story of Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, two brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney respectively) who take opposite views on the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The film begins in 1920 with a hurling match between young men. After the game they are confronted by the Black and Tans, an armed force employed by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Although he witnesses the fatal beating of his friend Micheail, who refuses to say his name in English, Damien elects to pursue his medical studies at a prestigious London hospital. But as he prepares to leave town, Damien sees a railway guard and the train driver resist armed British forces. The guard is beaten and Damien chooses to stay behind and help, subsequently joining his more militant brother Teddy as a member of the IRA.

The IRA column promptly infiltrates an army barracks for guns, which they use to assassinate four British Auxiliaries in a local pub. The brigade is captured after an Anglo-Irish landowner presses his servant Chris Reilly, a teenage IRA member, into revealing their location. All are set to be executed the next morning but a sympathetic Irish officer helps all but three prisoners to escape. Unfortunately Chris’ part in their capture means that the brigade have orders from Headquarters to execute him as a traitor. The act is performed by Damien, who has known him since he was a child. “I’ve crossed the line now Sinéad…I can’t feel anything,” he tells his sweetheart afterwards.

Further acts of violence on both sides persist until a truce is declared and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed, but the Treaty divides the IRA and the brothers. While Teddy argues that the terms are a starting point and that more gains can be made in the future, Damien believes that the war must continue until complete independence form Great Britain is achieved.

Damien (Cillian Murphy) joins the IRA.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley features fictional characters but historical events and figures are mentioned, such as socialist leader James Connolly. While awaiting execution, Dan and Damien discuss Connolly’s ideas, and Dan says that he saw the man speak at the Dublin Lock-out which occurred between August 1913 and January 1914. The sport of hurling, played in the opening scene of the movie, also has a historical basis. Many members of its Gaelic Athletic Association had been connected to the 1916 Easter Rising, so by 1918 the British government banned the organization completely. Yet the sport continued to be played as an act of Irish defiance.

The title of the movie comes from a poem of the same name. Written by 19th century poet Robert D. Joyce, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is about a rebel soon to take part in the doomed 1798 rebellion. The poem has since been set to music and performed by many artists. The ballad is used in the movie at Micheail’s funeral.

Of course the most controversial part of the film is the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans, often ex-soldiers who had fought in the trenches. The Wind That Shakes the Barley has been criticized by a minority for glorifying the IRA but while the audience is led to sympathize deeply with the IRA, I don’t think that the violence is glorified. Before shooting Chris Reilly, Damien comments to his friend, “I studied anatomy for five years, Dan. And now I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Reilly since he was a child. I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.” This isn’t a film about the glorious tactics of the IRA, it’s a brutal story about the devastating effect that violence has on people. Discussing the IRA and the Black and Tans, historian Calton Younger sums up the conflict best by writing:

“The Irish fighters dealt out shrewd and relentless death to the invader. The forces of the Crown struck back with ever less pity or scruple. Terror was met with terror. Atrocity was piled on atrocity in a ghastly game of tit for tat that seemed as if it could have no end. Who began it did not matter anymore. Each blow was an answer to the one before, and a prelude to the next. The British government condoned the tactics of its servants and protected them with the starkest lies while raising pious hands in horror as they reported the outrages of their adversaries. As always, the bitter truth was that neither side had much to be proud of.”

Part of the charm of this film is that it doesn’t depict the perfect Hollywood world of ideal speeches. Its characters speak realistically, talking over one another and sometimes stuttering, which I believe draws the viewer in and makes them feel a part of the movie. The film also contains what I consider one of the best political debates to be shown on film as IRA members debate the Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty sides:

Director Ken Loach filmed the movie in rural County Cork and the Irish countryside is beautiful. Some viewers will have trouble understanding the thick Cork accents used by most of the main characters at first, but I found that it became easier to understand as I continued to watch and the dialect became familiar.

The film does a wonderful job of re-creating the time period and is so engaging because it examines history in a regional light, looking at how the Anglo-Irish Treaty and guerilla warfare affected average citizens in rural Ireland. The acting is also excellent with Cillian Murphy in particular standing out. His Damien displays all the conflict that a doctor who must take action against a friend should display, but Pádraic Delaney is also wonderful as brother Teddy. This is not an easy movie to watch but it’s absolutely brilliant and provides an important look at the motivations, and events behind this turbulent time in Irish history. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley violence divides families and causes a doctor to kill in cold blood. Losses occur on both sides and no one remains immune to the violence. That is the tragedy of this powerfully moving film.

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Filed under Irish History, Period Drama Challenge

Amazing Grace

This is my first review for the 2010 Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera…History!

Set in the Georgian era, Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd), a Member of Parliament who became a leader in the movement for abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. Although discouraged by his latest defeat and physical ailment, Wilberforce is persuaded to tell the story of his anti-slavery campaign to the interested young Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). The film then flashes back fifteen years to the beginning of Wilberforce’s political career.

Initially unable to decide between doing “God’s work” or the work of a political activist, he is encouraged by his old Preacher John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, and by his friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who at 24 became the youngest Prime Minister of England, that he can do both. Fellow abolitionists Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, and Pitt’s political rival Charles James Fox (Michael Gambon assist him in this long quest, but they have powerful opposition that includes the Duke of Clarence and Banastre Tarleton.

Wilberforce seeks John Newton's advice.

Watching Amazing Grace for the first time I actually rolled my eyes at the opening scene. In it Wilberforce, although clearly unwell, stops his carriage and trudges through the mud to tell a driver beating his horse that if he leaves it alone it may recover. This is the audience’s first glimpse of Wilberforce and defending an animal seemed like such a cliche way to introduce him as the hero of the piece. Much to my surprise, this scene did actually occur! William Wilberforce was not only a noted lover of animals but a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (today the RSPCA).

Obviously my opinion of the movie improved as it went on and Amazing Grace has become one of my favourite films. Although it’s a minor detail, as an admirer of William Pitt the Younger I both noticed and was impressed by the fact that Pitt almost always has a glass in hand. After an attack of gout at fourteen, a doctor advised the future Prime Minister that a bottle of port a day was the cure. He continued to drink excessively throughout his life and Henry Addington (Prime Minister between 1801 and 1804) commented that “Mr. Pitt liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better”.

Wilberforce and Pitt discuss politics.

An important turning point in the film occurs when Pitt throws a dinner party designed to encourage his friend to take on the abolition of the slave trade. Although a dinner did occur, it was organized not by Pitt but by Thomas Clarkson, who Wilberforce had already met. When asked to introduce the issue in Parliament, Wilberforce replied that he “had no objection to bring forward the measure in Parliament when he was better prepared for it, and provided no person more proper could be found”. Two months later he made his final decision to present a Bill and Pitt urged him on.

Amazing Grace includes Wilberforce’s illness, which is usually thought to have been colitis. Although he was dependent on opium all his life, Wilberforce claimed that it never effected his mind and his dosage did not increase over time. Despite the opium, his illness was a constant worry and the film depicts an argument between Wilberforce and Pitt when the former’s illness prevents him from presenting his Bill to Parliament. As Prime Minister, Pitt could not openly be seen to oppose the King and refuses to present the Bill in his friend’s place. In actuality, Wilberforce’s illness didn’t cause a rift but may have brought them closer together. Although Pitt carefully avoided giving his own opinion, he did argue in Parliament that the slave trade should be discussed. Wilberforce wrote,

“Pitt, with a warmth and of principle and friendship that have made me love him better than I ever did before has taken on himself the management of the business, and promises to do all for me if I desire it, that, if I were an efficient man, it would be proper for me to do myself.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is Barbara Spooner, who is presented as a passionate intellectual equal. Unfortunately Spooner, while physically attractive, was actually timid and made a poor hostess. The whirlwind courtship, however, is true. Despite an eighteen year age difference, Wilberforce fell deeply in love with Barbara on sight. Just eight days after they first met he proposed. The wedding occurred six weeks later.

Wilberforce tells his story to Barbara Spooner.

Amazing Grace also casts Home Secretary Henry Dundas as something of a villain for his betrayal of Pitt and Wilberforce by inserting the word “gradual” into the motion for abolition. Yet Dundas was one of Pitt’s best friends and allies. Pitt biographer William Hague even suggests that “gradual abolition” was certainly discussed between Pitt and Dundas and may even have been Pitt’s fallback plan after outright abolition was defeated in the House.

Amazing Grace is largely accurate, and those things it does change are lesser details, but I do have to wonder about the continued references to “Lord Charles Fox”. Fox always served in the House of Commons and never held the title ‘Lord’. Conversely, the Duke of Clarence (the future William IV), depicted in the House, was a son of the King and would have been a member of the House of Lords. Tarleton and Dundas are also given the title ‘Lord’ incorrectly. Other minor inaccuracies are the presence of Wilberforce at Pitt’s deathbed (unfortunately Wilberforce did not make it in time) and the last speech of the film, delivered in the House of Commons by Charles James Fox. Although it’s a lovely moment, Fox died only months after Pitt and was not alive in 1807 to give a speech praising Wilberforce.

Amazing Grace isn’t the world’s best film but it remains one of my all-time favourites. The cast is great, including legends like Michael Gambon and Albert Finney along side the queen of period dramas Romola Garai, and I continue to find it very touching. It could easily be just a religious film but by downplaying some of Wilberforce’s evangelism it is spiritual without being preachy. Although it plays with dates and details, Amazing Grace doesn’t omit or change anything that significantly alters the story and is largely an accurate tale of the political battle for the abolition of the slave trade. It is a film initially about youth, and then about perseverance and I highly recommend it.


Filed under British History, Period Drama Challenge

2010 Challenges

For those interested in expanding their literary horizons, reading challenges are a great way for individuals with book blogs to get to know one another, discuss their current reads, and challenge themselves to read outside their comfort zones. Reading challenges usually run one year in length and ask participants to follow a set of rules in selecting their books, such as reading books in a particular genre, or only books with colours in the title.

This year I’ve decided to participate in the 2010 Year of the Historical Reading Challenge, which asks participants to read and review at least twelve works of fiction (one for each month of the challenge) with historical content. For the month of January I read and reviewed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and submitted my review to a post listing other participants’ January reads. I’m already interested in checking out at least a few of the books reviewed by my fellow bloggers!

Although I’m a little late for it, I’ve also chosen to participate in the Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera… History!, which runs until July 1st 2010. Participants can choose to view at any level, watching and reviewing anywhere from 2 to 12 movies set before or during World War Two. My goal is to watch eight period films.

Whether you’re interested in the historical or the literary there are certainly a number of challenges to interest any reader. Among my personal favourites are the Colorful Reading Challenge, which asks you to read nine books, each with a different colour in the title, and the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge that offers multiple challenge levels to suit any reader. If you’re wondering What’s in a Name? you can find out with this challenge that creatively asks bloggers to choose six books, one each with a food, body of water, title, plant, place name, and music term in the book title. Bloggers can also read their names with the Read Your Name Challenge that asks participants to “choose books with first title letters that spell out your name” or support their local libraries in a challenge that requires you to read at least 25 library books during 2010. These do not have to be reviewed.

For those interested in history, there are also some specific challenges geared towards the historical reader. These include the the Royal Mistresses Challenge, encompassing works of fiction or non-fiction where a royal mistress is the central character, the Jean Plaidy Challenge, and the French Historical Challenge, which asks participants to read historical fiction or non-fiction books based on French history or historical figures.

Wish me luck in my challenges for this year, and happy reading!


Filed under Period Drama Challenge