Review by Siobhán Rich for Mr. Will Wong
Heavy is the head that wear the crown in Stephen Frears’ latest Costume Drama, Victoria & Abdul. Starring Dame Judi Dench, the movie, based “mostly” on a true story, is a plodding take on platonic love, court machinations, and racism.
Jailhouse clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and his lamentably shorter countryman Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to sail from India to England to present Queen Victoria a ceremonial coin. Despite having been given very specific instructions on how to comport himself, Abdul makes eye contact with the Queen and sets into motion a 15-year relationship that would rock the entire royal household. When Victoria decides to elevate Abdul from servant to the role of her personal Munshi (teacher), the hatred toward the new royal favourite reaches a climax and the heir apparent, Prince Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), plots to rid his mother of her new Indian friend.
In a late Third Act speech, Victoria points out that in addition to being the Empress of India and Queen of England, she is the monarch and head of state to almost a billion a people around the world. Stephen Frears plays cleverly upon the juxtaposition of the frail 90-year-old woman standing up to her younger senior staff. Even Izzard’s Bertie is cowed by his fragile mother when she dons the invisible mantle of power and wields the power of her position.
Dench is outstanding in her second outing as Victoria (after 1997’s Mrs. Brown). She portrays both the Queen’s imperious nature and offers rare glimpses of her vulnerability. Of course, the Movie hinges entirely on Dench’s performance who is a superior actor to many of her co-stars including Fazal. Not being as good as Dench is hardly anything to be ashamed of and Fazal puts forward a character who, for the sake of the Movie, has clearly been scrubbed of faults to make him more sympathetic. Even when Bertie and his cohorts uncover damning information about Abdul the audience remains unswayed because they truly like Abdul and are willing to forgive him.
The biggest problem with Victoria & Abdul is how it handles the subject of racism. Screenwriter Lee Hall’s decision to approach the issue with humour gives a free pass to viewers to chuckle at Abdul’s treatment while still feeling superior to narrow minded 19th century characters. The real Abdul and Mohammed likely received much worse treatment than depicted in the Movie but when snide remarks like “the brown Mr. Brown” are played for laughs it diminishes both the Movie and the audience.
Period Dramas can be a hard-sell to the general moviegoing audience but watching Judi Dench inhabit a role like Queen Victoria is always a gift. A window into a short period late in Victoria’s life when her power was waning, Victoria and Abdul is a rare post-TIFF gem that is sure to please its intended audience.
Universal Pictures Canada release Victoria and Abdul on Friday, September 29, 2017 in Toronto and wide on Friday, October 6. 2017.
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