STARS: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
We live to play dress-up and let's pretend! Pretend that we're better than you, and deserving of the wealth and privilege we've been born into when we've done zilch to earn it. What, pray tell, does the curmudgeonly reviewer have in his gunsights now? Why, the royal family, of course!
Things haven't changed much in that respect from the days of old as evidenced by the obsequious pretense and butt kissing the royal staff maintained on a minute by minute basis--part of the job description--as attendants to Queen Victoria, the monarch who sat upon the British throne for 64 years. It's all done up with lavish style and great comic effect in Victoria & Abdul, with Dame Judi Dench reprising her role as the widowed queen who seemed to long for some genuine human connection, and found it in the person of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim clerk from India (under British rule at the time) who'd originally been selected to do nothing more than present a ceremonial coin to the queen on the fiftieth anniversary of her reign and then make himself scarce. He wasn't even supposed to look her at her (flashing on Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet...don't look at me...don't look at me!) But he did anyway--cheeky bugger. He caught her eye--had her at hello--and the rest, as they say is history.
Based upon the real story of these unlikely bedfellows (not literally, as she was HUGELY his senior), Victoria & Abdul is a lighthearted romp, for the most part, until it turns sinister. Karim became the queen's companion, confidant and teacher, and Victoria bestowed upon him honors and titles in increasingly disturbing ways--to the royal staff, that is--a bigoted lot, as was the fashion of the day. (You've heard of the Isle of White? Never mind.) They highly resented being upstaged by an Indian, and they plotted against Abdul, trying to turn Victoria against him.
Dame Judi brings to her part a kind of humanity that on the one hand may be unexpected considering the role a queen has to play, but on the other totally necessary to explain her fondness for the "Munshi"--a Persian word for teacher. For his part, Fazal doesn't bring great depth of character to his role, but he has a kind of self-effacing charm that carries him through. But the real delight of this film is the talented supporting cast. They've got few lines, but they make the most of their screen time by being as priggishly British as possible.
The climactic scene is a bit over the top for melodrama, but all in all I found Victoria & Abdul to be the dog's bollocks...the mutt's nuts! And the closing shot is truly majestic! Now, as a token of my affection for all things UK, here's a few lines from one of my poems (with Queen Lizzie in mind):
...yet some still say "Your Majesty"
to another human being and
manage it with a straight face.
An old lady sitting on the crapper
in a funny hat
she never takes off
Grade: B +
Two winners in a row? WOW. (As some of you may already know, Tim is a filmic fussbudget of the first order. Me, I'll go see anything. And usually, when I suggest a movie we should review, he immediately nixes the idea. So what I've taken to doing is seeing the movie anyway and then urging him—if it's a goodie—to go see it. Amazingly, Victoria & Abdul and The Big Sick were both handled in this manner. And both earned high marks from Mister Curmudgeon himself!)
I loved Victoria & Abdul. And a piece of casting trivia that I find interesting and quirky is that, in both her roles as Queen Victoria, Judi Dench's male partners (in the broadest sense of the word) are well-known comedians in Britain. For those of you who saw Mrs. Brown, the fellow who played John Brown was Billy Connelly – a Scotsman whose comic timing is universally appreciated throughout the UK. He's also an accomplished banjo player! As for the actor in Victoria & Abdul who played her wimpy yet cruel son Bertie? He, too, is a famous British comic: Eddie Izzard. As I said, interesting casting....
There's so much I enjoyed about this film – it's attention to detail, the insights it gave us about the loneliness of being a queen, the prejudice that drives people to do unthinkable acts....but if I had to praise just one thing, it would be how Judi Dench was made to look really, really old. (Since there are 22 names associated with The Makeup Department, I won't list them all!) And, as an aside, I so enjoyed how she looked so much younger when her 'Munshi' became her confidant. (Love does that to all of us!)
My only beef with this otherwise perfect film is that the size of the subtitles made them impossible to read. Even with glasses on!
Grade: B +