VICTORIA & ABDUL: As Twee But Warm As They Come
Prepare to be utterly charmed by Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul, a warm, twee film that gives movies for senior audiences a good name.
There’s nothing quite like an overly-sentimental, unashamedly twee film to warm your heart as the nights draw in and the temperature begins to drop; Stephen Frears is more than willing to comply and supplies exact that with the release of his latest feature-length, Victoria & Abdul, which documents an Indian muslim’s friendship with the Queen of England that only came to light a century after the fact.
In the 19th century, Abdul Karim became Queen Victoria’s closest confidante during the final fifteen years of her life, after he was brought to England to present her with a ceremonial coin during her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Known for being highly-strung, Abdul became one of few people to truly grow close to her and they became good friends; said friendship, however, was a major cause for concern to the royal household, earning the disapproval of her family and staff members, with the growing racial and social tension threatening to break down their unique bond.
If you find yourself questioning why you had not heard the true-life story before this film’s release, nobody had: it was not until Abdul’s memoirs were discovered over a century after the Queen’s passing that the full story was finally revealed. Their friendship had been completely scrubbed and erased from all royal documents by her family just moments after her death, in order to hide the interracial friendship that the household deemed embarrassing and defamatory; in fact, in her last years, staff and family attempted a revolt to have her certified insane and removed from the throne by force due to the shame they saw the (platonic) relationship bringing to the household. The tragic story has now been adapted into this partly-fictionalised (by the film’s own admission) version of events.
And it’s a rather mawkish affair indeed!
The biographical comedy-drama, adapted by Lee Hall, has no qualms about using every trick in the book to not only appeal to its target audience but ensure they are lapping up every word from the palm of their hand; it carries out its business, ticking every convention from the list with all the hallmarks of a BBC Film contained within. It’s frothy and its fluffy and completely self-aware, understanding the task at hand and the audience it must appeal to – notably, the older silver-screen surfers at one with anything royal-related.
Surprising depth for a shallow genre
That’s not to say others won’t find enjoyment in Victoria & Abdul though: more so than many similar pictures (in terms of recent examples, think of Hampstead, The Sense of An Ending and Churchill), it’s fascinating enough for wider audiences to have their interest piqued. While many younger people (myself included) feel very alienated by the single-minded genre, Victoria & Abdul provokes a very timely set of themes for consideration – race relationships, censorship and royalty – to provide this superficial and shallow genre with a film of at least some depth.
Don’t be mistaken, Victoria & Abdul is first and foremost an easy, light watch to indulge in on a rainy day – but there’s something fascinating about the untold story it finally tells that will appeal wider than the genre has reached before. It also explores tone more freely than the likes of Hampstead (my scathing review you can recap here), plumping for something rather bittersweet in place of the overly saccharine optimism that otherwise defines the silver surfers’ cinematic paradise.
A lot of the film’s success is attributed to the beautiful performances animating our titular pairing. Judi Dench reprises her role from 1997’s Mrs Brown to play the female monarch; very much a national treasure herself, Dench is a perfect fit for the long-reigning monarch she so magically transforms into, texturing the performance with the acidic bite and brutal honesty the ruler was known for. You can see the weariness in her eyes as she approaches the end and how they become re-invigorated in Abdul’s presence.
Ali Fazal plays the servant-come-friend, loving named ‘Munshi’ by Victoria, very effectively. As a mother figure to him, Abdul’s excitement and unwavering commitment to Victoria is evident, as he dedicates his life to serving, teaching and befriending her – despite the hostility of the royal household’s staff towards him. It is captured very skilfully by Fazal (in only his second English-language feature) and he balances the humour with the emotion efficiently.
A beautiful dynamic
It is when they are together though that Dench and Fazal are at their best. Charming and affecting, their relationship is wholesome and genuine, delving into this real-life friendship in the sweetest way possible. Frears quickly understands that the film is strongest when they are sharing scenes and one example – when he is teaching her his home language – is beautiful and touching and funny at the same time. Everything about the success of this film hinged on the two of them delivering a believable dynamic and they do so with ease.
Our supporting players are a little less impressive, however. When the comedy is surrendered to the minor characters (of which there are too many), it is completely hit or miss as to whether any of it actually lands – there are a couple of humorous moments but most become caricatures when they must do the heavy-lifting. When the jokes fall to them, it pushes the film into pantomime territory that spoils the momentum and threatens to make a mockery of the entire thing. Most of the humour feels unfortunately forced and stilted, as you have likely seen from the awkward trailers.
Frears, known for prestigious Academy Award dramas such as The Grifters, The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins, provides Victoria & Abdul with some solid, serviceable direction. In one particularly fine scene, as our titular pair visit one of the Queen’s grand houses, he focuses in tightly on the pair, sharing a stunningly intimate moment with each opening up to the other. At the same time, he manages to emphasise the beauty of the setting with some glorious sweeping shots, wide angles and delightful cinematography.
Thomas Newman is responsible for scoring the film and the well-respected composer (he has been nominated for fifteen Academy Awards) does a mighty fine job. It manages to infuse both a joy and sorrow, juggling the main two genres with confidence and balance. Maybe it’s too manipulative at times but I’d really expect nothing less.
In Conclusion: Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul is not my usual cup of tea but I was charmed. It is a warming and twee example of film-making for a very particular demographic, but it is definitely one of the better examples of its genre. It is as manipulative as expected and lets itself down when it heads for complete pantomime territory – but thanks to some fine direction and lovely lead performances, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Victoria & Abdul tells its interesting story in a rather generic fashion, but light and fluffy entertainment can be found within and it’s a fine watch on a rainy day.
Which is your favourite royal-related film?
Victoria & Abdul is out now in the UK and US. Full dates can be found here.
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