Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul Is Flawed Yet Eminently Watchable

Judi Dench is infallibly excellent, while apna Ali Fazal grabs the global-op to deliver a likeable performance

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Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul Is Flawed Yet Eminently Watchable
3 Stars

Ta ra romp pomp pomp. Richer-than-rich tapestries, mega-magnificent castles, lace-‘n’-embroidered costumes, azure-green meadows, topped by the ever-superb Dame Judi Dench are on show here. Now really what more could you ask of a period pageant set in the merry old England of the 19th century?

Indeed, director Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, adapted from a non-fiction novel by Shrabani Basu, is an eye-fiesta. Culled from a true-life story, “mostly” you’re warned, the outcome is too politically correct though.

It seems circa 1885 -- the holier-than-thou Queen Victoria, 68 years old and in the 50th year of her reigndom -- became quite frisky and risque with a tall, dark and handsome young man, beneath her stature.

judi dench and ali fazal
Judi dench & Ali Fazal

The point that the tall-etc man is a Muslim clerk from Agra, comes across as patronising. Hey, the mightiest of queens have throbbed with a secular, socialist heart too. Clap, clap.

Don’t get me wrong though. Besides the rather condescending sub-text, here’s a watchable film, especially during the first half of its one hour-52-minute footage. The mood is ultra-lite, jokes are cracked at the expense of the corseted monacracy, and above all it’s stressed that the queen, aka the Empress of India, is ha-ha-so-human, dealing with bouts of loneliness amidst a fawning crowd.

Contrary to the image of a woman who may have invented the phrase “We are not amused”, she’s quite jokey actually. Brilliant! So when apna Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) arrives to present the official gift of a specially minted coin at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Banquet, her cup of amusement (or should that be ‘tolerance’?) runneth over.

ali fazal in victoria and abdul
Ali Fazal 

Ensues an ever-so-unlikely friendship between the eponymous twosome. From Abdul, she learns of the delightful scent of a mango, picks up the fineries of the Urdu language, and wah wah…of the impropriety of the extraction of the Kohinoor diamond from the Peacock Throne. Overall, she’s pretty much impressed with the clerk’s glibspeak on the lines of, “Life is a carpet. We weave in and out to make patterns.” Ahem.

Expectedly, the clerk is elevated to the status of ‘Munshi’. Alas, the proceedings get darkish, deadly and complicated. Abdul’s burqa-clad wife and mother-in-law clutter up the already crowded scene. Moreover, the royal court’s naysayers – led by the Queen’s son and heir Edward VII aka ‘Bertie’ (Eddie Izzard, ouch so overwrought) – shift the dramaturgy’s gears from a comedy of manners to a helter skelter melodrama.

ali fazal and judi dench
Ali fazal & Judi Dench 

Frears, whose best work include the offbeat My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen -- appears to lose control, and wraps up the material as if he had lost patience. Consequently, Abdul’s characterisation suffers in the film’s latter-half.

Despite the unevenness, the film’s salvaged by the faultless performance by the one and only Judi Dench. The way she acts with her eyes, is a masterclass in fine acting. As for Ali Fazal, he grabs this major global-op to establish a likeable screen presence. Sensitive and shorn of artifice, he’s impressive.

Of the rest of the ensemble, keep a look-out for Olivia Williams as Baroness Churchill and Paul Higgins as the Queen’s doctor.

Incidentally, Dame Dench had played Queen Victoria before in Mr Brown (1997), which had revolved around the queen’s friendship with her Scottish man-servant. Ah then, did the queen have a thing about chumming up with the underlings,as it were?

Maybe. Don’t ask yourself too many questions. Just go with the ebb and flow of V & A, and you’ll be grateful for this behind-the-scenes look at the royalty of yore. 

Image Source: youtube/universalpicturesuk

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