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‘Victoria’ review: Jenna Coleman, in PBS drama, delivers the crown

Jenna Coleman as the young queen in

Jenna Coleman as the young queen in "Victoria," premiering on PBS' "Masterpiece" on Sunday. Photo Credit: PBS

THE MINISERIES “Victoria” on “Masterpiece”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday, Jan. 15, at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT When Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman, “Doctor Who”) is crowned in 1837, she needs guidance, and isn’t about to accept any from the despised Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys) — who had helped raise her since childhood. She instead turns to the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) for whom she develops romantic feelings. This eight-parter — an “Upstairs, Downstairs”-type story set in Buckinghman Palace with the Queen in the upstairs part, and the servants below — follows Victoria through to her marriage with Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).

MY SAY Just as “Victoria” was set to air last summer in the United Kingdom, Victoria biographer Jane Ridley Bronx-cheered the whole affair in a newspaper column titled, “The young Victoria most certainly did not fancy her fat, aging minister.” That was a reference to Sewell’s Melbourne, who is neither here, and who becomes the object of Victoria’s amorous attention a few episodes in. Of the queen, Ridley wrote “Victoria herself, played by Coleman, is perhaps too thin and too pretty — more like Kate Middleton, controlled and poised, than the historical tempestuous, willful, plump young queen . . . ”

A smash in Britain (a second season already has been ordered), viewers there didn’t object to Coleman and they certainly won’t here. And with Netflix’s Golden Globe winner, “The Crown,” as evidence, they don’t mind their TV history air-brushed as long as it’s not Photoshopped.

“Victoria,” in fact, does venture into fiction at times. There’s a made-up Dickensian villain with the Dickensian name of Penge, who’s a steward in the “downstairs” portion of the story, with a penchant for sedition and practical jokes. He’s played by veteran actor Adrian Schiller (most recently in “The Danish Girl”) and lights up the screen (and story) every time he appears. No harm, no foul there.

And per Ridley, the young real-life Victoria had zero romantic interest in the real-life Melbourne “who by sixty . . . had turned enormously fat.” Prince Albert turns up later in the series and neither history — nor Ridley — tell us whether the real one was as photogenic as Tom Hughes. Again: No harm, no foul.

Comparisons with “The Crown” are inevitable, occasionally favorable. In both stories, Victoria and Elizabeth are young women surrounded by doddering ministers or Machiavellian lampreys. Forced into a complicated world — specifically a chauvinist one — they must fight their own battles, occasionally their own human impulses. Claire Foy’s Elizabeth is high-minded and principled. Coleman’s Victoria is impetuous and iron-willed. Both create — or re-create — vivid human portraits.

So approach “Victoria” for what it is — a lavish production with impeccable period details and some impeccable entertainment ones — and you will be pleased. Coleman, who’s wonderful here, assures that anyway.

BOTTOM LINE Sumptuous production — some historic liberties taken — and Coleman is terrific.

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