Victoria & Abdul

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Victoria & Abdul  (2017)    Focus/Drama    RT: 112 minutes    Rated PG-13 (some thematic elements, language)    Director: Stephen Frears    Screenplay: Lee Hall    Music: Thomas Newman    Cinematography: Danny Cohen    Release date: September 29, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins, Simon Callow, Julian Wadham, Olivia Williams.

 

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 Of all the movies to get sequels, 1997’s Mrs. Brown was among the least likely candidates for a second chapter. That’s the one starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria whose friendship with her servant John Brown (Billi Connolly) causes something of an uproar. It did well at the box office but historical dramas rarely get sequels even though there’s more than one story to tell about any given historical figure. That is certainly true of Queen Victoria as evidenced by Victoria & Abdul, a handsomely mounted production that tells the story of Her Majesty’s friendship with an Indian servant. Not much was known about this relationship until 2010 when the servant’s diary was made public. It’s really quite a story too.

 victoria-and-abdulDench reprises her role as Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul which opens in 1887, twenty years after the events of Mrs. Brown. The aging monarch has become cantankerous, disagreeable and fed up with official ceremonies and functions. She’s fat and in poor health. She waddles around in stony silence with a sour expression affixed on her joyless, shriveled face. At a dinner for the Golden Jubilee celebration, she makes her way through each course as quickly as possible without a single regard for protocol which requires guests to stop eating when she does. Plates are removed before guests are finished with the course. The Queen even manages to squeeze in a nap before dessert is served.

 As part of the Jubilee celebrating her 50 years on the throne, Victoria is to receive an Indian ceremonial coin. As I’m sure you know, India was under British rule at the time making Victoria their empress. Brought from India to present the coin is Abdul (Fazal, Furious 7), a commoner who works as a clerk in a prisoner. He and another man, Mohammed (Akhtar, The Big Sick), travel to England where they’re told what to do. The most important thing for them to remember is to never look directly at the Queen. Of course, Abdul ignores this, even kissing the monarch’s feet before her horrified staff. The Queen sees something in this mysterious, handsome foreigner and makes him her footman. He starts helping her with her daily correspondences. She asks him about his home country and other things. She learns that he is actually a Muslim, not a Hindu like everybody says. She appoints him her “munshi” (the Urdu word for “teacher”) and asks him to teach her the language as well as the Koran.

 Naturally, this new friendship doesn’t go over well with those in her inner circle- Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Gambon, Viceroy’s House), personal physician Dr. Reid (Higgins, In the Loop) and Baroness Churchill (Williams, Rushmore)- or her son Bertie (comedian Izzard), next in line for the throne. They do everything they can to discredit Abdul like bringing it to the Queen’s attention that he hasn’t been forthright in telling her how his countrymen really feel about her. The Muslims have placed a fatwa on her. Of course, Victoria feels betrayed but understands the position her friend is in.

 Dench was nominated for Best Actress for Mrs. Brown and I see that happening again for Victoria & Abdul. She is absolutely amazing in it. There’s something very regal about this actress. She’s also versatile. How many elderly British actresses can play heads of country AND a secret spy agency (i.e. M from the James Bond franchise)? Here, she plays Victoria in her twilight years and all but ready to die when this tall Indian chap shows up and teaches her to love life once again. Fazal is also quite good as Abdul, a cheerful sort with plenty of youthful energy and enthusiasm. He proves to be a loyal servant and friend, never leaving the Queen’s side until her death in 1901. Izzard depicts Bertie as a petulant, insecure sneaky rat-bastard who can’t stand to see his mother take a foreigner, one he perceives as inferior, into her confidence. The whole cast does a fine job.

 Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), Victoria & Abdul is gorgeous. It scores off the charts in terms of set design, costumes and interiors. All of the technical aspects are handled with absolute precision right down to Victoria’s missing teeth (no dental plan in the UK?). Some of the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The movie also has a sense of humor. After a concert by the great opera singer Puccini (Callow, Viceroy’s House), the Queen is persuaded to sing a Gilbert & Sullivan tune (“I’m Called Little Buttercup”). It’s a bit off-key but so is her platonic relationship with Abdul.

 In a larger sense, Victoria & Abdul is also an examination of British racism and elitism. Everybody, including the household servants, views the Indians as inferior. At one point, they all threaten to resign if the Queen doesn’t end her friendship with Abdul. It’s actually a miracle we’re hearing this story at all. Right after she died, Bertie ordered all evidence of the relationship destroyed. He didn’t want any of it on the record. Well, guess what? He failed. I couldn’t be happier. Victoria & Abdul is a fascinating story. Hard to say how much is fact and how much is fiction but it makes for good cinema. 

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