Film Review – Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul
Queen Victoria was one of the most recognizable and influential of the British Monarchs. Until very recently she had the longest reign of all of England’s royalty. And as a figure in popular culture she is likely amongst the top mental images we all have when considering the stoicism and opulence of the realm. So to see her portrayed during her waning days is a moving experience. And that is what we get in the new film Victoria & Abdul.
Victoria’s Golden Jubilee is coming up, the 50th anniversary of her accession. India is under British rule and the politics of that rule are complicated. Some British officials select a couple of emissaries to present Her Majesty with a ceremonial coin during the celebration. Selected because he was the tallest Indian they could quickly find, one of the two chosen is Abdul Karim played with sweet earnestness by Ali Fazal. These servants are sent halfway around the world to come to the royal palace for an exchange that will last all of a few seconds. But this is England at the height of it’s pomposity, and the whole affair is to be choreographed within an inch of it’s life. Meanwhile, Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is the very visage of jaded and tired. At this point in her life, she has been walked through thousands of tedious occasions like this. To top it off, she’s an old woman of questionable health who is just simply done with it all. Though ordered not to make eye contact, the awestruck Abdul does, catching the eye of the Queen. He’s invited to more ceremonies by Her Majesty, and eventually attains a prominent role in the household. This was a real life incident where late in life Victoria struck an unlikely friendship with a lowly member of a nation she uneasily ruled. And this movie is a portrayal of that relationship.
Victoria & Abdul almost plays as a loose sequel to the earlier film Mrs. Brown. That film too was about Victoria’s close friendship with a subject, and Judi Dench played her as well. Both John Brown and her departed Prince Albert are even both evoked at one point in a rather poignant moment when she relays how lonely she’s been.
Dench is quite terrific here once again. This actress keeps claiming she’s retired due to advanced age and health. Yet, this is one of 3 movies she’s credited with just this year. Dame Judi is a real acting treasure and I selfishly hope she keeps going as long as she can. Her Victoria here is cantankerous, a bit sad, funny, strong, and eager to hear about the Indian culture of which she is mostly ignorant. When Abdul describes such things as the beauty of the Taj Mahal or the taste of a Mango, she is completely enthralled. It’s quite possible we are seeing the beginning of the Oscar race for Best Actress with this performance.
Theirs is a sweet and platonic friendship that no one else in the court approves of at all. Lord Ponsonby, one of the heads of her court as played by longtime supporting actor Tim Pigott-Smith in what looks to be one of his last roles (the film has a dedication to him since he died earlier this year), is aghast at every turn at Abdul’s influence on her. When she wants to invite Abdul to functions or add Indian touches to the palace, the entire household is in an uproar.
Victoria’s son and presumptive heir Bertie, a delightfully terse Eddie Izzard, is impatient with her whims. Aside of the unseemliness of championing an Indian, Bertie is impatient for his mother to pass on so he may rule. But this friendship seems to give Victoria a new lease on life. She gets a spring in her step that leads to improvements in everything from more regular bowel movements to her deciding to sing Buttercup from H.M.S. Pinafore as if she were a schoolgirl. That singing scene in particular is a standout with Simon Callow as Puccini really playing up the self importance as he performs for the Queen.
Queen Victoria has had one of the most frequently portrayed lives in British culture. Whether it’s aforementioned Mrs. Brown or the young Victoria series earlier this year on PBS or even her varied appearances in trifles ranging from Dr. Who to Monty Python to Black Adder to Around the World in 80 Days, you would think we would have mined everything there is from this particular historical icon. And yet, looking at this late in life portrayal, there is still more fascination to be had.
I mentioned the Oscars earlier, and Dame Judi has even been nominated for playing this particular Queen before. This movie may seem like typical Oscar bait. And it could possibly dismissed as another in a line of films like The King’s Speech or The Imitation Game as movies that could have just as easily been a fine episode of Masterpiece Theater but not necessarily groundbreaking cinema. While Victoria and Abdul may share some of those trappings, Stephen Frears is a really terrific director who has been making quality films for decades. This movie is a step above, closer to a good Merchant/Ivory movie than just another episode of Downton Abbey. In other words, it earns it’s right to be a bona fide movie. Also, the top notch acting really does this little story justice.