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VICTORIA & ABDUL 

UK, 2017, 112 minutes, Colour.

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Piggott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Eddie Izzard, Fenella Woolgar, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Wadham.

Directed by Stephen Frears.

Lest anyone think or suspect that this picture of Queen Victoria is a throwback to 19th century ra-ra Empire days and glorification of the Victorian era, there is quite a lot of Britons satirising themselves and their past in the early part of this film.

Yes, it is a picture of Queen Victoria. One might say that it is something of a warts and all picture, highlighting how crusty she could be but also how lonely she could be in her record-breaking long reign. And, since she is played once again by Judi Dench, the impact on the audience is particularly strong. In searching for a word to describe Judi Dench’s performance, this reviewer would decide on the word “perfect”.

The title is something of a surprise except for those who are experts on the reign of Queen Victoria. The opening of the film says that it is based on real events and then adds “mostly”. A look at the rather long Wikipedia entry about Abdul Karim shows that the events in the film and the characterisation seem to be quite strongly true to life.

We know who Queen Victoria is from the many films about her reign. In 1997 we even saw Judi Dench, in an Oscar-nominated performance, as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and her strong friendship with the Scotsman, John Brown. In this film, John Brown has been dead for some time and there is an emotional hole in the heart of Queen Victoria. She has little satisfaction from her children, considering her rather profligate oldest son, Bertie (to be Edward VII) as an embarrassment. She has affection for some of the servants but the official members of her household seem to be career servants.

So, who is Abdul (very empathetic Indian actor, Ali Fazal)? He is a rather genial Moslem from Agra, a clerk in a prison, filing names and dates. He has given some opinions about a carpet sent to England for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. He also has the advantage of being tall and so is chosen by British officials to go to London to present a special coiin to the Queen. He was to have a tall companion but this man had an accident with an elephant and so a rather shorter man goes instead, Mohammed (a very good comic role for Adeel Akhtar) who finds it very difficult going to England, being there, finding the food and manners barbaric, longing for home, but able to criticise England in British terms, a bloody terrible place.

At this time, Victoria is nearing 70, describing herself as a crusty, greedy old lady, fat but an inordinate love for power. She has servants galore, to dress her, to wait at table for ambassadorial functions (and the banquet scene with all the servants in livery, the cooks in the kitchen, the little boy running up the corridor with announcements, is enough to stir aggressively socialist attitudes in the audience). And there are rituals, especially for the presentation of the medal with strict instructions not to look at the Queen.

Abdul does.

The Queen is interested in him, attracted to him, favours him, having him as an advisor, teaching her Urdo, appointing him her Munshie, religious mentor. And the friendship becomes closer over the years, allowing him to go back to India to bring his wife and mother-in-law, wearing burkhas, allowing him more access to her presence than many of her staff, taking him to Scotland and Balmoral and picnics in the Highlands, for a visit to Florence (and a meeting with Simon Callow as Puccini, truly hamming it up).

The film becomes more and more serious as it progresses, especially with the Royal household becoming more and more antipathetic to Abdul, insulting and racist in their comments and behaviour, conspiring to dishonour him in the Queen’s eyes, invoking Bertie (Eddie Izzard) who certainly does not approve of his mother and her seeming insanity.

This makes the drama all the more interesting, offering insights into the work of the Queen as head of state, her royal duties and responsibilities, her decisions, the influence of the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon), the head of the household, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggott-Smith).

The film moves to the death of Queen Victoria in 2001, the reaction of Edward VII to Abdul, Abdul and his return to India and his complete loyalty and devotion to the monarch who favoured him.

Given the Muslim ascendancy in today’s world as well as fears of and antagonism towards Muslim asylum seekers and refugees, let alone Islamist jihadists, this is a timely entertainment to alert audiences, especially Western audiences, to prejudices and intolerant behaviour.

The film was written by Lee Hall, who also wrote Billy Elliot, and directed by Stephen Frears who directed The Queen and directed Judi Dench as Philomena. It is quite sumptuous to look at. It is often very funny at the expense of upper-class 19th century aristocrats. It is serious in its reflections on the role of the British Empire, especially its presence in India, it is exploitation of Indians and the move towards independence.

In all aspects, it is very interesting and enjoyable.

 

 

(source: Signis Reviews)

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