Review: Victoria & Abdul balances racism amid light laughter and sentimental tears
- Credit: Focus Features/Peter Mountain
Twenty years after Judi Dench captured the aching loneliness and dignity of Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown she effortlessly slips back into the regal garb of Queen Victoria for Stephen Frears' heart-warming drama about an unlikely friendship with a young Indian.
Victoria & Abdul (15)
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench incarnation) and director Stephen Frears share a propensity for putting it about a bit. During nearly a half century of directing for the big and small screen, Frears has filmed the works of David Hare, Roddy Doyle, Alan Bennett and Hanif Kureshi, and had a go at any number of topics and styles.
But even so, isn't it a bit of come down for the man who used to make Comic Strip episodes and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, to be doing what is effectively Mrs Brown 2?
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After Dench's previous dalliance with a Billy Connolly's Scottish security guard, this time The Queen Vic's roving eye alights on an Indian servant (Ali Fazal) who carves out a role for himself as her Majesty's spiritual guru, or Munshi.
What is Frear's doing directing such tame, heritage cinema stuff? He's doing brilliantly I'd say; this is a fine exercise in having your crown and smashing it on the floor.
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The true-ish story of Mohammed Abdul Karim's period as the Queen's confidante is a gift for writers because, aside from offering a benign Rasputin tale, provocative contemporary parallels just tumble effortlessly out of it. A Queen who has reigned for over six decades but dreads leaving the throne to her embarrassment of a son; a lady royal who dallies with the affections of a Moslem. It practically writes itself.
The English are cruelest when they are being polite. The film is as nice as pie: it has that gentle humour and pageantry that lures the older audience into the cinema. It all seems rather sedate and genteel but at the same time it is brutal. It's all our dirty laundry exposed to the world, all the sordid little realities of Empire but lightly doused in lavender for those that prefer to avoid the smell.
Nobody really comes out of this film well. Without making too much of a point about it, the film does a good job of outlining the mechanics of Empire, its ludicrous and wasteful pageantry. And it doesn't shirk from showing QE1 to be an evil old bat.
Brought all the way from India just to make a presentation, Abdul is instructed never to make eye contact with the Queen. Similarly, the film avoids showing her in its opening minutes building up to the moment when she will be revealed at dinner, resembling an obese ogre.
As you'd expect the film has great fun with the fawning of her obsequious household staff, who are much put out by the Indian's rise to prominence.
Fazal plays him as a happy and devoted innocent but the film subtly undercuts this interpretation, suggesting that he might be a little bit of a gigolo, shamelessly ponsing off of a gullible old lady's affection. It wasn't just the colour of his skin that made him so loathed by the rest of her staff.
It's a marvel of British costume drama, a laying bare of racism, cruelty and systematic subjugation, that is full of light laughter and sentimental tears.