Victoria and Abdul
Stephen Frears is a master of British humour and sarcasm. If that was a genre, he would be today’s most preeminent representative. He owns a special quality, he can switch between drama and comedy like no one else; he does it with elegance and fluidity. And there must be a box of fairy dust Frears brings with him on the set that he sprinkles on most of his films, this time also with the help of Thomas Newman whose score accompanies perfectly every scene.
Victoria and Abdul depicts a very tired monarch (Judi Dench); she’s rough, she eats fast – even with her own hands – and sleeps most of the time. She has no interest in any official celebration, she despises aristocrats and the people around her – her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) in particular. A handsome servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), taken from India just to present a colony’s gift to the Queen for the Golden Jubilee, catches her attention and quickly becomes the closest person to Victoria: not only a friend but also a munshi (teacher) and clerk. There’s a great deal of speculation about the relationship between the Queen and her former helper John Brown (Dench starred in a film about that too, Mrs Brown), and any information is even blurrier when it comes to Abdul. What is certain, though, is that he had a subversive effect on her household.
Judi Dench is the best possible actress for this role; her understanding of the character is unique, and also of the script: she delivers with equal confidence the lighthearted and more serious moments (there’s a particularly striking monologue at the end). Hers is a portrait of a ruler unaware and distant from the on-site actions of the British Empire. Victoria looks at Abdul with the eyes of a child, and protects him like a mother: “How dare you look down on Abdul,” she tells her highest-ranking staff.
Frears’s mockery of the royal (and colonial) traditions, customs and beliefs is mildly provocative but extremely entertaining: when the Indians arrive in England, the British officer proudly exclaims “oh this is civilisation” whilst a group of homeless people beg for food and money; everything served to the Queen is royal by definition whether it’s a disgusting jelly dessert (royal pudding) or an organ checked by her doctor (royal colon). The Indian characters and Her Majesty are portrayed as the only reasonable ones.
There are corny moments – for instance Abdul’s metaphor “life is like a carpet, we thread fibres to make it beautiful” – but overall it’s a joyful celebration of diversity and the British-Indian heritage. It’s another film about integration (with a particular focus on Muslims and the use of the veil for women) and the public will love it.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Victoria and Abdul is released nationwide on 15th September 2017.
Watch two clips from Victoria and Abdul here: