Victoria & Abdul (2017) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Review published October 27, 2017
Victoria & Abdul is set in 1887, during the time of Queen Victoria's (Dench, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) Golden Jubilee, a celebration of her fifty years since ascending to the throne. It is there that she would meet Abdul Karim (Fazal, Furious 7) , which would kick off a friendship that would continue to her death, four years later. This causes much consternation among the royal court as well as her family, who think Abdul to be a commoner (of a different color, culture, and religion at that) unworthy of being the queen's confidant and munshi (teacher), and do whatever they can to drive a wedge between them.
Directed by Stephen Frears, who would bring about Academy Award nominations for venerable actresses before in such films as The Queen (which scored an Oscar for Helen Mirren) and Florence Foster Jenkins (which gave Meryl Streep another nomination), Victoria & Abdul continues his further fascination for period films about women in high society who must find a way to upend expectations that they are to know their place in this world and be compliant to the structure that has persisted. The screenplay is by Billy Elliot's Lee Hall, spinning forth from the 2010 book by journalist Shrabani Basu, entitled, "Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant", as well as from letters of correspondence between the two, and Abdul's own diaries from India. Some of Queen Victoria's Urdu exercise books housed at Windsor Castle also provide some inspiration for certain scenes within the film.
As with the aforementioned Frears' vehicles starring highly revered actresses, the main delight in seeing Victoria & Abdul comes in watching Dame Judi Dench's commanding performance as Queen Victoria. It's not her first time in the role, as she played a younger version of the queen in her very first lead film role in John Madden's 1998 effort, Mrs. Brown. That film also gave Dench her first Oscar nomination, and she's only gotten better since, which means that it may mean another Oscar nod in her future for her performance in this one.
Dench perfectly exhibits a Victoria who, after five whole decades of relative sameness in the schedule of her position, feels a prisoner in her own castle, bored by her royal chores she must perform, and tired of her court and family who fight with one another as to who will earn the most favor. It's no wonder Victoria finds herself dozing off during all of the pomp and ritual that has surrounded her nearly all of her life. Dench really shows a lonely woman coming to life in the presence of someone who is nothing like anyone she has met before, fascinated by his looks, demeanor, personal history, knowledge of culture, and inability to comprehend the adherence to customs that has bound her from free will for so very long. For those moments they share together, Abdul is an outlet to not be queen, at least for a while, and the only feeling of intimacy she has had since the death of her beloved Albert, thirty years prior.
Bollywood star Ali Fazal makes a nice debut as a lead in mainstream Western fare, though his character loses some of his co-starring status once Dench enters the scene and dominates much of the film henceforth. There are decent performances by a notable supporting cast, but nothing outstanding, as Frears veers toward making them all hit the same notes as calculating connivers and buffoonish bootlickers who want to see Victoria's new friend out of the way so that they can continue to garner her attention and favor.
Although the tone of the film often veers toward comedy, there are underlying themes to the film that have a bit more weight on their mind. In this time where there appears to be a movement against immigrants, Muslims, and embracing multiculturalism in general, within England, other parts of Europe, as well as the United States, here is a much beloved historical figure who chose to forgo the advice of those around her in order to see person of another race, class, religion and language as worth embracing, even taking the time to try to write in Urdu at this late stage in her life, and to desire to know much more about his culture.
It's a simple story of friendship, but a subtle call to end the current divisiveness in order to come together in unity, harmony and in valuing each other to become a stronger and better form of people, rather than live in one-sided ignorance and racist attitudes toward giving someone who looks or believes differently any modicum of power to choose their own destiny.
Sending up the absurdity of sustained rituals of the aristocracy and its emphasis on decorum over natural human behavior, Victoria & Abdul finds some choice comedic wrinkles, despite a narrative that feels massaged and contorted in order to please a wider audience. At its best, its wit shines through, ties to a timely message of embracing differences, and with a few touching moments, especially a nicely portrayed final scene between Victoria and Abdul that will likely draw some Oscar favor. If only it could have told its story with more thematic layers, eye for authenticity over pandering to please the crowd, and emphasis on characterizations beyond caricature for its supporting cast, perhaps we'd have a film we'd be talking about for Best Picture beyond just accolades for its star.
©2017 Vince Leo