Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Judi Dench excels at playing cranky old queens. Perhaps I need to rephrase that. She is really good at playing long in the tooth, female members of the British royal family. She has to my count played Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and this movie is her second round as Queen Victoria. The first was Mrs. Brown (1997) which oddly enough detailed her relationship with a Scottish servant named John Brown. His forward attitude and lack of reverence for palace rules helped her get over the crippling grief of her husband Albert's death. Victoria and Abdul is such a similar story except that Abdul hails from much farther away than Scotland.

To celebrate Victoria's 50th year on the throne, an odd pairing is sent from India to present her with a special coin at a royal state dinner. Karim Abdul (Ali Fazal) is young, tall, handsome and honored to be chosen. His companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is older, shorter, much more cynical and pretty much hates the British. The Queen Victoria that Abdul meets is presented at first as almost a set piece. She is dressed, made up each morning, given a daily schedule and then moved around like expensive, delicate furniture. At the presentation dinner, Abdul breaks the most repeated of the rules. While bowed and walking away (backwards of all things) he makes eye contact with Victoria and smiles. That's how it all starts. You can tell from that first interaction that she is a woman brought back to life. She inquires about Adbul and in a very short time, he has become part of the royal household staff which is a big deal. He also starts teaching her his particular language from India and also about Islam. You don't have to be an expert to know how this goes over. Jealousy mounts among the other companions and servants. Her son and heir to the throne, "Bertie" (a surprising Eddie Izzard) has what could be described as a freak out except he's British so, you know, it's all clenched jaws and a stiff upper lip.

I found all of this quite a bit of fun. Judi Dench perfectly captures the Victoria this movie is going for. She relishes the disapproval of everyone from her ladies in waiting to the Prime Minister because she's the Queen and they can't do a darn thing about Abdul. The scenery is gorgeous because also if your the Queen, you have a lot of houses to choose from; so we get some beautiful shots of the different palaces and the Scottish countryside. I suppose any criticism is that it's all a bit of well lit fantasy. The colonial hold England had over India was really more a story of struggle, bloodshed and racism. Mohammed's character is a balance of sorts. He is miserable for most of the time in England and gives voice to the desire of the Indian population to have respect and ultimately independence. I guess I think that there would be no enjoyment in all of these romanticized costume dramas if you had to stay on point with the history. If you want that, go check out The Last Viceroy (starring Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) playing on Netflix right now.