Victoria and Abdul

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  Victoria and Abdul
 

Late in her long reign as Queen of the British Empire and Empress of India, Victoria (Judi Dench) has grown bored with ruling her globe-spanning domain. That is, until she makes eye contact with a young Indian man, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who is brought to England to present the queen with a special gold coin. This brief encounter will begin a close relationship that will last for years in “Victoria and Abdul.”

Robin:
After sitting through “Victoria and Abdul,” I took a look back at director Stephen Frears filmography and found that his career can, roughly, be divided into two “eras.”  The first era in his feature film career began with “The Hit (1984),” “My Beautiful Launderette (1985),” “The Grifters (1990) and up to “Dirty Pretty Things (2002).” These are all edgy, down-and-dirty movies that pushed the indie envelope.

Era number two began in 2005 with “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and includes his more sentimental works like “The Queen (2006),” “Philomena (2013),” “Florence Foster Jenkins (2015)” and, now, “Victoria and Abdul.” Dame Judi reprises the role she first played, back in 1997 (for director John Madden), as Queen Victoria, about the second man in her life in “Mrs. Brown.”

Dame Judi won her Oscar in 1999 playing another Queen of England, Elizabeth I, in “Shakespeare in Love.” Dench, in “Victoria and Abdul,” lends her queenly presence to her role, now as the aging monarch who is smitten with the exotic, handsome and young Abdul. There is no hint of an actual romance between the title characters. Instead the relationship between queen and subject is one of, mostly, mutual affection and admiration – he for his Queen and Empress of India, she for her handsome, exotic munshi (teacher).

Ali Fazal, as Abdul, has the exotic good looks to be the apple of his queen’s eye, but I never felt his character flesh out to answer my question: Why would the queen go so against royal protocol and go so far as to propose her protégé/mentor for a knighthood? The answer to the question, I think, is that she simply wanted to piss off her court, especially her son and future king, Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard).

The supporting cast is a wasted wealth of acting talent with Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith and other notable thesps given minor roles surrounding their queen. Notable, though, is Adeel Akhtar as Mohammed, who was conscripted to be a part, with Abdul, of the coin ceremony. His plight – always cold in the damp English clime and homesick for India – is used for comic relief, mostly, but I felt a real sympathy for the little guy who just wants to go home.

The production for “Victoria and Abdul” is sumptuous and travels from Delhi and Agra to the Isle of Wight and the Scottish highlands. The pomp, circumstance and formality of the royal office are shown in detail, making my anti-royalist blood boil with its sheer decadence. The look of the film, though, outshines the uninspired story. I give it a B-.

Laura:
In her 70's, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has been worn down by her decades on the throne and the loss of the two men she loved, Prince Albert and John Brown.  She's wearied by the schedule of her fiftieth Golden Jubilee celebration until someone sparks her interest, an Indian clerk brought to England to present her with a ceremonial coin.  When she later remarks that she found him 'terribly handsome,' her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith, "Alice in Wonderland"), quickly arranges for the man to continue to serve the Queen, a decision he comes to regret as her entire household is thrown into turmoil by the deep friendship between "Victoria and Abdul."

The story of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, "Furious 7"), who would quickly attain the position of 'Munshi,' or teacher, to the Queen, only recently came to light upon the publication of Shrabani Basu's 'Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,' a subject she fell upon while researching a book on curries.  Having learned Queen Victoria enjoyed curry, she traveled to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where she saw several portraits of Abdul.  Although Victoria's son, Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), had ordered all of the Queen and Abdul's correspondence to be destroyed upon her death, he neglected to dispose of the Queen's own diaries which she had written in Urdu, the 'noble' language which had been taught to her by the Munshi.  Basu found these in the Royal Archives, further research leading her to Abdul's own journal locked in a trunk in India.

There is a rich story here, one which encompasses not only the last years of Victoria's reign, but class, racism and colonialism.  But as adapted by Lee Hall ("War Horse") and directed by Stephen Frears ("Florence Foster Jenkins"), it appears the filmmakers are more interested in the unusual nature of the friendship and the resistance to it than digging more deeply into Victoria and Abdul's political influence on each other.  The entire film may be summed up by Queen Victoria's response to Puccini's (Simon Callow, "Four Weddings and a Funeral") (fictional) performance of an aria from Manon Lescaut, his tragic opera about lovers from different social classes.  Upon learning its subject, Victoria responds she much prefers comic operas.

Frears's film is a sequel of sorts to John Madden's 1997 film "Mrs. Brown," in which Dench also played Victoria in her first leading film role.  Twenty years later, Dench owns the role once more, her performance the film's biggest asset.  Frears keeps Dench hidden for the film's first dozen minutes, charting the British Army's Arthur Bigge's (Robin Soans, "The Queen") schooling of Abdul and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, "The Big Sick")    on royal protocol as they travel to England for their moment with the Queen.  We finally see her as she takes her place at the head of an extensive banquet table.  Dench is scowling, focused on nothing but greedily consuming the dishes placed in front of her, soup spilling down her chin, pulling poultry apart with her fingers, stuffing an entire profiterole into her mouth.  She has little interest in the coin presented to her, but as Abdul backs away he gazes at the Queen against protocol.  She catches his eye and stares back.

Abdul is placed in the Queen's office and her household panic begins when she shoos everyone else out of the room.  Abdul begins to talk about various things, his description of her carpet delighting her.  He tells her about the Taj Mahal, a place the Empress of India cannot visit because of a fatwa on her head.  He tells her about the Peacock Throne which once held the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  She unironically replies that she owns that now, having asked Albert to have it recut because it didn't sparkle enough.  Abdul innocently tells her British soldiers destroyed the throne. It's more like listening to two children at play than the Queen of an empire and her subject from half a world away.

In Scotland, Victoria travels to Glassalt Shiel, her remote getaway at Balmoral, alone with Abdul.  She opens up to him about her low regard for most of her children ('Bertie is a complete embarrassment').  Bertie later objects to Abdul, saying she's treating him 'like a member of the family.' 'I *like* Abdul,' his mother snaps back.  'I can take a Muslim anywhere I want.'

There are only two moments of discord between the two, the first when Victoria learns it was the Muslims who led the revolution.  Feeling betrayed, she orders Abdul home, then relents (the filmmakers do not make it clear whether Abdul misled the Queen in any way).  The second is when Abdul mentions his wife.  Victoria is flabbergasted that he has never mentioned this, ordering him home to fetch her (the woman and her mother arrive covered in burqas).  Royal physician Dr. Reid's (Paul Higgins, "Red Road") revelation that Abdul has a raging case of gonorrhea is met with Victoria's exasperated command to treat him (and once again, the situation is trotted out with no attempt at explanation, another fact checked off the list).  The film's climax finds Victoria suggesting knighthood for Abdul, her household so horrified at this lowly Indian's rise among them, they send lady-in-waiting Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar, "Mr. Turner") as their emissary threatening to quit the Queen.  She continues to defy them.

But "Victoria and Abdul" goes no further than exhibiting Europe's longest reigning monarch, disgusted by the sycophants who surround her, enjoying the friendship of an exotic young man. That Abdul himself may have been one of them, as suggested when Bertie and Ponsonby interrogate Mohammed, is not examined.  As portrayed by Fazal, Abdul is a wide eyed innocent who immediately feels affection for the woman who describes herself as cantankerous and morbidly obese and is the very face of colonial injustice in his country.  The film is a comforting, middlebrow arthouse release in the old Miramax tradition.  But it does have Dench, who is perfection as the stubborn, lonely queen and the production cannot be faulted.  Also notable is Akhtar as the comically shorter and less good looking of the two Indian servants (he was a last minute replacement when the original appointee fell off an elephant).  Unlike Abdul, Akhtar's Mohammed is miserable in England's weather, his character used by the filmmakers as the voice against colonialism. Olivia Williams and Michael Gambon are relegated to a few lines of dialogue as Baroness Churchill (Winston's mother) and Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister.

Grade:  C+
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