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‘Victoria’ review: Sanitized look at the British monarch

Jenna Coleman stars as Queen Victoria and Tom

Jenna Coleman stars as Queen Victoria and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert in "Victoria on Masterpiece." Credit: ITV for Masterpiece / Gareth Gattrell

THE SERIES “Victoria on Masterpiece”

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT As the second season gets underway, Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is anxious to get back to work after the birth of her first child (also named Victoria). Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) wants to inspect his regiment, and Victoria wants to as well: “It may be your regiment, Albert, but it is my army.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Peel’s (Nigel Lindsay) war in Afghanistan is going poorly. Next week: Another child arrives, and personal challenges arise. This season, Diana Rigg — as the Duchess of Buccleuch — joins the cast of this hit, which was created and written by Daisy Goodwin.

MY SAY If history is kind to those who write it (Churchill) then whatever happened to this prolific writer of her own history (Victoria)? The queen wrote millions of words about her everyday world, but posterity ignored most of them by turning her into a frumpy moralist in a bonnet.

Revisionism is now well underway. Goodwin’s bestselling novel on the young Victoria was followed by Julia Baird’s “intimate” biography last fall, which coincided with this ITV production adapted from Goodwin’s book. “Victoria” is now a huge hit and somewhere the queen is smiling. In Coleman’s portrayal, she’s warm, luminous and fully alive. It’s been scoured of that remnant image of a dour monarch who ruled the empire with starchy rectitude and disdain by declaring “the important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”

Instead, this season, Rigg’s Duchess of Buccleuch assumes the role of prig: “In my day, no woman would be allowed to read a novel,” she sniffs.

This season, as last, Coleman’s young monarch remains passionate, stubborn and engaged. On Sunday, she wants to know what to do about Afghanistan. In next week’s episode, while looking out a window at hungry crowds jostling the palace gates, she doesn’t see subjects but fellow humans. A weaver comes before his queen to ask for tariffs, to protect his business and his son’s future, and his reflexively fair-minded ruler orders them (until reminded by her prime minister that they don’t always work as intended). She cries when her beloved dog dies. She gathers Albert in her warm embrace when personal tragedy strikes his family.

She’s not just a queen. She’s a saint, and that’s sometimes a problem with this well-meaning portrait that refuses to throw a little shade at Victoria now and then. Baird writes in her biography (“Victoria the Queen”) that she “was a decisive ruler who complained of the weight of her work while bossing around her prime ministers daily, if not hourly,” then quoted one of them (William Gladstone), saying: “The queen alone is enough to kill any man.”

But in its zeal to correct the badly flawed record, “Victoria” may have overcorrected. As good as Coleman is, there’s not much mystery in her portrait, and not many questions either. How did Victoria ultimately become the most powerful person on the planet over the course of nearly a century?

Instead, “Victoria” is a beautiful, warm, reassuring bath. You may come away with a better sense of who she wasn’t, not perhaps of who she really was.

BOTTOM LINE The second season is a beauty, and Diana Rigg is in the house, but “Victoria” still feels like sanitized history.

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