Stunning visuals, a great Dench performance, muddled story
Twenty years ago, Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown. In that film, the widowed and grieving Victoria recovered her joie de vivre thanks to a brash Scottish servant played by Billy Connolly.
Now Ms. Dench stars in Stephen Frears’ Victoria And Abdul, which has a very similar premise. The aging and thoroughly bored Victoria recovers her joie de vivre thanks to a handsome Indian servant played by Ali Fazal (Furious 7).
There are some differences between the two films. Mrs. Brown has an “are they, or aren’t they” kind of vibe, while Victoria And Abdul makes it quite clear nothing romantic is going on. Abdul becomes Victoria’s “munshi”, a term used to indicate a secretary or clerk. He also teaches Victoria-generally about India and more specifically by giving her lessons in Urdu and the Koran.
Many people at court disapprove of the friendship, Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) chief among them. There are also snide remarks from people like Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), who refers to Abdul as “the brown John Brown”. But Victoria’s position allows her to disregard such naysayers.
This is a handsome production, which pays lavish attention to detail. It has location shots of palaces and depictions of royal routine (such as the assembly line of servants needed to clothe Victoria each day). There are lingering scenes of multi-course feasts, in palaces and elsewhere. Visually, this film is catnip for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd.
Dench is reliably wonderful as the aging, cantankerous monarch. Fazal does what he can with an unevenly developed role. The character of Abdul remains a cypher throughout. This is puzzling because Lee Hall’s script is adapted from Shrabani Basu’s novel (which is based on Abdul Karim’s journals).
Other characters are served even less well. Adeel Akthar, in particular, has a thankless role as Mohammed. He points out English hypocrisy and barbarity in several scenes, only to fall victim to both. Abdul, who either does not notice or tolerates English bad behavior, is rewarded. Meanwhile, the people at court are depicted as bigots who misunderstand the beautiful friendship between Victoria and Abdul. If the filmmakers intend a moral here, I am not entirely sure what it is.
Except for the visuals and Dench’s performance, I found this film to be a bit “off”.
Theme: Royal Friendships
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