Monday, August 20, 2018

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

Victoria & Abdul (2017): adapted from the Shrabani Basu non-fiction book by Lee Hall; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Eddie Izzard (Bertie, Prince of Wales), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), and Adeel Akhtar (Mohammed [Buksh]): 

As the opening titles tell us, Victoria & Abdul is "mostly" based on true events. It's a feel-good story about racial harmony in a peculiar place, involving unlikely people -- senior-citizen Queen Victoria and Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim.

Basically, this is a white cop/ black cop buddy movie. If only they'd given Victoria & Abdul a crime to solve! That would have been awesome. 

Brought to England for Victoria's Golden Jubilee for a fictional reason (the real one being too mundane, I guess), Abdul becomes the Queen's trusted confidante and teacher in all things Indian (that part is true!) for more than a decade (also true). Everyone else in the palace really hates this (true) and once Victoria dies a couple of years after her Diamond Jubilee, Abdul is sent back to India and the story hushed up (true).

It's all very posh and life-affirming. It's also hard to believe that Victoria & Abdul was directed by Stephen Frears, or at least the Stephen Frears of Dangerous Liasons. That Frears would have gone with the reality that Abdul was something of an operator, as revealed in actual documents, when it came to getting some of the perks that the movie instead presents as if they dropped from Victoria's benevolent brow like the gentle rain from Heaven.

Because there's no edge here, Abdul becomes what in American movies is referred to as the Saintly Negro, an old trope and not an advance in racial relations. He's a dewy-eyed innocent in the Halls of the Martian Kings. 

The characters around Abdul are all one-dimensional Talking Points. Abdul's Indian Muslim companion Mohammed, in reality  an experienced servant in the Indian Raj for years, is here an amateur who dies from England's weather almost immediately after delivering an expletive-heavy speech about the horrors of colonialism to Bertie, Prince of Wales. 

Queen Victoria, an operator herself in real life, stumbles into solutions to problems rather than pro-actively reasoning through her moves in relation to Abdul and his ascension in the palace hierarchy as she again and again did in real life. And so on, and so forth. Eddie Izzard's Bertie, heir to the throne, is an almost-literal mustache-twirling, blustery villain from a Charlie Chaplin short. 

A scene in which Abdul ingratiates himself with Victoria by kissing her feet did not sit well with a lot of people. It also does not seem to have happened. Crikey!

It's an entertaining movie, I guess, at least in terms of Judi Dench's performance as Victoria in winter, lonely and cagey and surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who not-so-secretly hold her in contempt. And she did learn to speak and write Urdu from Abdul, which really is an impressive feat. Lightly recommended depending on your politics.

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