When I whisk Jean-Marc Vallée off to a corner of the room, away from the PR hive of the Covent Garden Hotel, I pray that he doesn’t recognise me as the numpty who mistakenly showed up yesterday to interview him (in my defence his press people muddled the dates). But the French-Canadian director, in London to promote his latest movie The Young Victoria, only has one woman on his mind.
As the rest of the room recedes into pre-film premiere chaos (echoed murmurings about the car line-up and royal security for tonight’s red carpet event ring clear) we make a beeline for the open fire in the hotel’s residence lounge, and chat about British rock ‘n’ roll and one royal rebel. ‘I like to see her as a rock ‘n’ roll girl for her time. This girl was someone special.’
The Young Victoria, a charming, elegant and intricate biopic about Queen Victoria’s turbulent and passionate formative years, boasts the winning formula of all-star producers (including Graham King, Martin Scorsese and one Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York) and cast (Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent). ‘It was a very beautiful shoot,’ says Vallée. ‘The most beautiful experience of my life so far.’
The morose, po-faced image we have of the widowed, long-reigning Queen is long-forgotten in this film, which celebrates the joyous Victoria of youth and vitality. ‘She was a rebel. She wanted to do it her own way, and to show the world, and her mother and the others around her, that she could do the job. And it is quite a job when you’re 18 and you’re a woman, to have this responsibility in your hand to become the Queen of England.
‘She was fortunate enough to meet her soul mate. And that is the touching part: her romance, meeting Albert and loving Albert the way she did. When I read the script, when I started reading her private letters to Albert, and Albert’s letters to Victoria – these two were quite a match. And if you believe in soul mates and fairytales, the film is a little bit fairytale-like, because of the love story, because of how they feel for each other.’
There was obviously strong chemistry between Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. Did that make your job easier?
Absolutely. The magic is there. But Rupert is so ugly isn’t he? I mean Emily fell right away, and so did Rupert. They were so nice and so easy going…so professional. They wanted to research a lot. Emily had so many classes at the same time. She had to learn how to side-saddle, draw, play piano, German language. They really devoted themselves to these two parts to make them as emotional as possible. It’s funny as we were shooting I was almost forgetting to say ‘cut’ because I was so in the moment. And you’re touched and you’re almost choking and you’re “cut!”.’
The Young Victoria is quite a leap, in terms of style, from your last film, C.R.A.Z.Y. Did you find it difficult adapting to a period drama?
‘The challenge was to be able to feel confident in this world. So I had to research just like the actors, I read and read so much about the British culture and history and the monarchy and the royal family because I wanted to know what to say to the actors, what the motivation of the characters was for each and every single part. That’s where I was feeling a little bit, not unconfident, but concerned to be offered the job and make it well.’
Emily Blunt is the perfect Victoria. Did you ever consider anyone else for the role?
‘No, no. When I got on board she was almost on board. She approached – through her agent – Graham (King) and Julian (Fellowes), and she said that she wanted to play that part, so when Graham met her and I came in they introduced me to her. And I saw her previous films, and we wanted a young British actress, and she was it. There was nobody else. We didn’t go through any casting sessions for that part. It was Emily Blunt and she was suited for it perfectly.
‘She has something even royal when you look at her. So, so much charisma, so much talent, so much beauty. The soul, the heart…she’s really a beautiful person, a beautiful woman, and such a devoted actress. I felt blessed. She’s like another Kate: Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, great actresses, and here’s Emily.’
Did you film many scenes in London?
‘Yes. We shot in Lancaster House, one of the most beautiful palaces in London. I just feel comfortable here with the British and the chill-out attitude and the pubs, and I think that my love and my passion for British rock ‘n’ roll got me the job because with C.R.A.Z.Y. 80 per cent of the music is British rock ‘n’ roll so the producers enjoyed and reacted to that. And here I am in London, in the UK, making a film in the most beautiful palaces and castles.
‘I worked so much that I haven’t had the time to visit just a little bit of London. But fortunately I had private tours of Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace. So what I’ve seen of London and England was more through the film, through the locations where we were going: Blenheim Palace, Arundel (Castle), Ham House, Hampton Court. The gardens of Hampton Court are gorgeous. That’s where we shot the conversation between Melbourne and Victoria. But I haven’t seen the Tate, I haven’t been a tourist yet. I’ll have to come back just for that.’
The Young Victoria opens nationwide on Friday 6 March