SMACKDOWN-UPDATE: No surprise here. The Costume Designers Guild has awarded Sandy Powell for her impeccable period work in "The Young Victoria." Academy voters saw fit to ignore Emily Blunt's stellar performance but did the right thing in nominating Powell. While the Academy rewards only one film for costuming, the Guild manages to pay tribute to more of its members by dividing work into useful categories. This year, for instance, costume designer Monique Prudhomme, took home the Guild's Fantasy film prize for her loopy and decidedly over-the-top "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," and Doug Hall took home a statue for his low-key Contemporary work in "Crazy Heart." (For reference, last year's winners in these categories were "The Duchess" for Period, "Dark Knight" for Fantasy, and "Slumdog Millionaire" for Contemporary. "Mad Men" fans might be delighted to learn that the coolest looking show on television has won two years in a row in the Period/Fantasy category while newcomer "Glee" took the prize for Contemporary design.)
"The Young Victoria" heads into Oscar week something of a favorite. While "Parnassus" won in its Costume Guild category, Academy voters might not feel compelled to reward a fantasy film that didn't do much at the box office; prestige and history might carry the day. Other Academy nominees include "Coco Before Chanel" "Bright Star" and "Nine." Here's our original Smack from late last year — The Young Victoria -vs- Sherlock Holmes –
The Smackdown. Calling all Anglophiles! England’s
longest reigning monarch takes on the cleverest subject of her (fictional)
realm in this All-Union-Jack Smackdown. Both repackaged and reimagined for the
new millennium’s theatergoing audience –
the usually buttoned-up Victoria gets unstuffed and sexed up in a lush
period romance/political drama, and Sherlock gets the no-holds-barred
no-punches-pulled Guy Ritchie/Joel Silver treatment. Both title characters make
formidable contenders for the Smackdown crown; there’s nothing I appreciate
more than a really good makeover.
In This Corner. “The Young Victoria” works well;
Emily Blunt inhabits the title role (her first) with serene confidence,
spirited intelligence and refined wit. Her Victoria is flesh and bone. You can
see all the gears whirring; never has political ambition and a steep learning
curve seemed so comely. As Albert, Rupert Friend makes for a dreamy match. Paul
Bettany’s steamy Lord Melbourne provides an unusually balanced
romantic/political triangle, especially for those who might be planning a visit
to London’s Victoria and Lord Melbourne Museum. For the rest of us, knowing how
it ends doesn’t hamper the drama in the least. Victoria and Albert have a true
connection, and we ache for them to close the deal. These (what’s the opposite
of star-crossed?) lovers earn all their honeymoon-hottie cavorting in the
sheets and on horseback, their waltz in the rain. We watch them and try to
reconcile our warehoused mental images of Old Victoria with this coltish girl.
In That Corner. No tweedy opiate-smoking intellectual
will suffice for this lucrative franchise in the making – Robert Downey Jr.’s
Sherlock Holmes is a full-on superhero action figure, still blessed with
unmatched deductive reasoning, now souped up with new and improved six-pack abs
and the hand-to-hand ultimate fighting skills to go with ‘em. Ritchie’s
familiar stutter-cut flash forward and backward tricks service the hero well;
Holmes’ legendary mind works too fast for normal voiceover and mere dialogue.
His motor runs at warp speed, and so does Downey’s. By contrast, Jude Law’s Dr.
Watson lives underwater, but like every true superhero’s second, he always
manages somehow to appear at the perfect moment. The plot is duly complicated,
the action sequences and effects are expensive and compelling. But it’s
Downey’s franchise to win or lose. In this, his second go-round as a British
icon (recall his BAFTA winning, Academy Award nominated turn as Charlie
Chaplin), Downey’s found a suitable role for all his crazy brilliance and keen
intelligence, and I suspect thrillseeking audiences will demand he return home
to Holmes for a sequel or two. Take that, Iron Man 2.
The Scorecard. “The Young Victoria” is a feast for
the eyes. The clothes. The locations. The positively dizzifying interiors. All
historically accurate and absolutely dazzling. This is a period piece that
spares no expense to thrill and treat and teach. Every frame is a painting;
director Jean-Marc Vallée puts his camera exactly where it belongs. Costume
dramas should thrill us aesthetically,
and this one never disappoints. Luckily for us, human drama, compellingly
complex political intrigue, and suspense aren’t sacrificed on the altar of
Blunt’s Victoria is no addled Disney princess. A woman of
substance from the start, resolutely herself, supremely self-assured, Blunt
plays this worthy heroine to the hilt. The film is strongminded as well, not
stooping to sugarcoat or whitewash. Victoria makes rookie mistakes, suffers
serious consequences, and learns from them. A product of her time and her
ultra-rareified upbringing, Victoria struggles with the constraints without
offending propriety or tipping her hand. Her complicated relationships ebb and
flow; politics and family intermingle in alarming and surprising ways. A sense
of real and imminent danger floats above the proceedings, no small feat given
that everyone knows Victoria more than survived. Unanswered questions hover,
sustaining our interest and prolonging dramatic tension. Small currents of
electricity charge even the most mundane moments; Mark Strong’s malevolently
ambitious Sir John Conroy registers strongly as a the worthy villain. His every
appearance amps up the tension and sense of danger. Miranda Richardson plays the
role of Victoria’s mother sympathetically — touching, clueless, wrongheaded,
and sorely misled.
A few clumsy storytelling moments keep “Young Victoria” from
achieving inarguable masterpiece status, anchoring it securely in an
uber-expensive Masterpiece Theatre realm of excellence instead. Paragraphs of
information and backstory get delivered hamhandedly; exposition that may be
necessary to get us up to historical speed occasionally detract from the
otherwise exquisite narrative flow and land us too squarely in the classroom.
(I was half expecting the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman to read all the
super-titles aloud.) The very end of the movie is a too-telescoped muddle;
filmmakers overshot their mission, imparting too much drama in unfortunate
shorthand and rendering it dry as dust. They might have more wisely ended
earlier and provided the necessity for a fully realized sequel. (The Less Young
Victoria?) But this is niggling. The achievement is huge and worthy of a look,
the bigger the screen, the better.
Without my urging, audiences are packing the multiplex, responding
to Sherlock Holmes’ humor and panache; new superheroes are always welcome, and
well-conceived ones are rare. Holmes is more than a collection of fancy parlor
tricks; he actually uses his keen powers of observation to solve every dilemma
and puzzle the script throws in his path. He stays a step ahead of everyone
onscreen and the audience, and Downey’s tossed-off ease makes for the coolest
Holmes version ever.
Anachronisms rule in Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian London.
Rachel McAdams’ smokey-eye makeup and George Sand-style trousers defy period
convention and common sense. But one suspects period accuracies are not a part
of the Sherlock Holmes mission
statement; the under-construction Tower Bridge looms large throughout,
patiently and ominously waiting its turn for a climactic action sequence that
doesn’t disappoint. The opening and closing credits are stylish and moody, the
art direction detailed and dark.
Mark Strong plays the villain in "Sherlock Holmes" as well; a
younger and more menacing British version of Stanley Tucci. Eddie Marsan plays
a creepy Inspector Lestrade, and seven foot tall Robert Maillet’s Dredger is a
real live special effect, an impossibly lethal walking talking weapon. The
story is overly complicated and arcane hokum; no one but Holmes could ever make
sense of it all, but wrap it up in a tidy ribbon he does.
Like most superhero-and-trusty-sidekick dynamic duos, Watson
and Holmes banter endlessly, arguing like an old married couple, adding a
none-too-subtle homoerotic subtext to their longstanding living arrangement.
The women add no real sexual heat to the proceedings; Irene dresses like a man
for half the movie, and Mary clucks and fusses more like a guardian than
fiancee. No, the real love match here is clearly between the doctor and his
longtime companion; the women function as elaborate beards, and the obstacles
and objections they inspire raise questions that never get adequately answered.
The Decision. “Sherlock Holmes” is a better theme
park ride of a movie, and I can’t deny how much fun most of the audience seemed
to be having. For me though, all that snarky unraveling of a puzzle constructed
just to be unraveled leaves me wanting a little more, and all the gunplay,
explosions, and fisticuffs leave me wanting a little less. Maybe I’m just
testosterone challenged, but I’ll take revelatory history over convoluted mystery.
“The Young Victoria” wins the day. Any day.