For a prestige season biopic about a member of the British royalty, The Young Victoria could certainly be a whole lot worse, and this is something I clung to as no uncertain comfort during the film's 104 minute running time that feels a good deal longer. There might be no genre that I want to love quite so often and succeed in loving so infrequently as the costume drama; the promise of spectacle and gorgeous design too often gives way to stilted Olde Tyme dialogue and lots of scenes of people acting very prim and hushed as dust languorously drifts through sunbeams in an approximation of beautiful cinematography.

That's not what turns out to be the problem with The Young Victoria; in fact, I still haven't quite settled upon what exactly turns out to be the problem with The Young Victoria, except that perhaps the young Victoria isn't as interesting as the old Victoria. But I'll get there soon enough.

As I was going to say, if there's one thing that sets The Young Victoria apart from the great majority of recent costume dramas, it is that the tone is resolutely modern: not in the aggressive manner of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (a film with its own exhausting combination of brilliance and massive problems, but let's not get into that here), but in a much simpler manner, keeping itself breezy and bright in the manner of a modern romantic dramedy, and this has virtually everything to do with the casting of Emily Blunt as Princess Victoria of Kent, later Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom - say whatever else one will about Blunt, for good or ill, but she is not for a second believable as a 19th Century monarch. There is just something about her bearing and build that marks her as indisputably a product of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries; it is perhaps not clear that I consider this a strength of the film, as it gives this Victoria an unusual level of freshness and emotional relatability for a costume drama protagonist. Blunt has been uneven at best since her breakout performance in The Devil Wears Prada, but I must with this film concede a second point in her favor; her portrayal of the young Victoria is quite ballsy and bold and fun, even if it isn't terribly convincing that she grows up to become the most symbolically important British ruler of the last 400 years.

The film breaks into two parts, and they are close enough to equal halves that I am simply going to call them such. The first part begins with Victoria's birth in May, 1819, but mostly concerns itself with the matter of the year prior to her accession to the throne in June, 1837, in which the princess was the focal point of a fairly ridiculous number of political calculations on all sides: her mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and the duchess's advisor and probable lover Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) both want to use the future queen as their pawn in an attempt to gain wealth and power; her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) hopes to manipulate her into giving aid and comfort to his kingdom in despite of Britain's best interests; the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) wants her to shore up the Whig party's political future; King William IV (Jim Broadbent) just hopes that she can stave off all these other players long enough to keep his kingdom intact. And Leopold's hatchet-man, and Victoria's first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Rupert Friend), the only thing he wants is to know that she loves him as much as he loves her.

Maybe I'm just easily amused, but I found all of this madcap political wrangling, replete with an overbearing motif of chess symbolism, to be altogether delightful; best of all is Blunt's steely reserve in the face of seemingly a whole nation full of people conspiring to use her for their own ends. At times, Julian Fellowes's screenplay errs on the side of too many names being exposited rather too quickly, and all at the same time; and certainly director Jean-Marc Vallée goes a bit nuts trying to punch up the drama of the situation, while also helping to keep the story straight (I swear, every new scene in the first ten minutes is introduced with another damn title card). But by the same token, the cast pops and snarls and swoons with abandon, and the editing, by Jill Bilcock (Baz Luhrmann's old editor) and Matt Garner, is unusually tight - almost every shot ends at least a few frames before you expect it to, if not longer, and the result is a film that's insistently pounding forward, always keeping you a little bit on your toes. In addition to being dodgy history (but who expected otherwise?), it is somewhat manic, stupid fun; but fun it is anyway, if you have even the remotest tolerance for period drama.

Then, alas, Victoria becomes queen, and The Young Victoria just plain stops - the scene where she basically gives her mom a regal "fuck you" being perhaps the last truly delightful moment in the film. There are still traces of the high-falutin' politicking of the first half, but for the most part, only two narrative strands remain: Victoria is unduly influenced by Lord Melbourne, or Victoria and Albert flirt shamelessly in letters. To be honest, the love story almost works: neither Blunt for Friend really rings my bells, but they have a kind of twisted chemistry despite how little screentime they share for three-quarters of the film, and their first post-coital morning is one of the most charming, humane moments in the piece. But the political intrigues are absolutely dull, dull, dull: did you know that Victoria nearly destroyed the British empire over the selection of her ladies-in-waiting? Well, I didn't, and now that I do, I still don't think it was all that interesting to watch. The Young Victoria makes a strong argument that the only thing interesting about the queen was her love affair with Albert; and even that got a much more lovely and touching workout in the 1997 Judi Dench vehicle Mrs. Brown.

This is when the film goes off the rails and becomes exactly the stuffy, wandering costume drama that it so assiduously failed to be for a good 50 minutes; and here is where the things that were already kind of hard to avoid, like Vallée's hyperbolic direction and Hagen Bogdanski's anonymously picturesque cinematography - and gawd, but the less I think about Ilan Eshkeri's loopy, soaring score, the happier I'll be - finally swamp the movie and take all the fun right out of it. There's still the usual costume film compensations - the costumes, obviously, by Sandy Powell, and the sumptuous production design - but in the end, The Young Victoria is just another one of the same damn things that buzz about like mayflies every year: delicate and elegant and forgotten the moment they pass from sight. It would take a much stronger first act to save the film from that inevitable fate.