Friday, September 29, 2017

Victoria and Abdul: A revealing friendship

Victoria and Abdul (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic elements and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

History is laden with fascinating incidents and anecdotes, and — here’s the amazing thing — more pop up all the time.

Having been granted the privilege of serving "the jelly" — at the request of Queen Victoria
(Judi Dency) — Abdul (Ali Fazal, center) does his best to maneuver the wobbly dessert,
while Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) watches nervously.
You’d think, given the tireless methodology of modern research, that we’d have uncovered pretty much everything by now. Chances are, not even close.

Case in point: The unlikely, all but unknown — and (deliberately) mostly concealed — camaraderie that bonded Britain’s Queen Victoria and a former Muslim Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. The saga came to light in 2010, with the publication of research journalist Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant; the details were assembled from the hitherto undiscovered journals of both Abdul and Victoria, the latter written in Hindustani Urdu (!).

The narrative immediately demanded even wider exposure, and this thoughtful big-screen translation comes courtesy of director Stephen Frears: an apt choice, given the similar sensitivity he brought to the depiction of Elizabeth II, in 2006’s The Queen. Scripter Lee Hall has adapted Basu’s book with grace and the sly wit at which the British excel, particularly when they’re poking gentle fun at themselves.

The thoroughly captivating result is anchored by the venerable Judi Dench, taking a second crack at the role she first played in 1997’s Mrs. Brown (which, rather intriguingly, details a similarly “imprudent” incident in Queen Victoria’s life). But while Dench dominates this new film — how could she not? — Ali Fazal also deserves credit for the elegance with which he has brought an equally compelling character to life.

This is late during Queen Victoria’s reign, when she has become — in her own words — fat, lame, cantankerous and impotent (along with several other marvelous pejoratives that I couldn’t jot down quickly enough). The regal routine, and life itself, have become tedious things to be endured, rarely enjoyed. She suffers fools not at all, let alone gladly; each day begins with chiding admonitions about diet and “movement” from the royal physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins).

Dench always has excelled at withering glances, and they get plenty of exercise here. Victoria is well aware of the obsequious jockeying that takes place behind closed doors, as her many children — led by heir apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — and court hangers-on curry favor and snipe at each other. No conversation comes close to actual candor; she can’t trust anybody to be sincere, and she’s well aware that everybody is waiting for her to die.

But she also rules a sizable chunk of the world, her various titles including Empress of India. As a result, the many honors bestowed upon Victoria during her Golden Jubilee year — 1887, when this film begins — include the presentation of a ceremonial gold coin by two men who’ve been brought all the way from India for this task: Abdul and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar).

The presentation takes place during a lavish court dinner, the condescending instructions curt and specific: Bow, offer the coin on its special pillow, back away — still bowing — and disappear. But the awed, impressionable 24-year-old Abdul can’t help breaking one of the many strict rules: He makes eye contact with Victoria.

Who, in Dench’s subtle manner, radiates curiosity and ... something else. Perhaps a grain of surprised respect, having realized that this handsome young stranger has broken protocol.

Indeed, Fazal’s Abdul is every bit as good-looking as archive photos of the man himself. Fazal thus is given the expansive and “respected” role, while Akhtar’s Mohammed is present mostly for one-dimensional comic relief: pained expressions and caustic gibes at the “barbarism” of the British.

One thing leads to another, and suddenly Abdul and Mohammed’s brief visit blossoms into a lengthy stay: much to the latter’s displeasure, frequently suffering in the biting cold of a British winter and their unheated accommodations. Mohammed also doesn’t approve, regarding his luckier companion as a sell-out who is cheerfully willing to climb as many rungs of the “stinky, creaking ladder of the shitty British empire” as the situation will allow.

But if Mohammed merely disapproves, Bertie and the rest of Victoria’s closest advisors are apoplectic, particularly when she makes Abdul her “Munshi” (teacher) and grants him all manner of privileges. The two become inseparable, in great part because Victoria feels that she can be a “regular person” in Abdul’s company; he makes no demands of her, and lacks the status to expect any.

Thus begins the fascinating dance within Hall’s deft script. Although focused on the rapidly blossoming and sweetly cherished — but thoroughly platonic — bond between Victoria and Abdul, Hall is coyly ambiguous about the latter’s actual motivations. Is Abdul genuinely principled, kind and guileless, or is he subtly crafting his rising stature, taking advantage of the situation?

And does that really matter, given that he and Victoria both value — and benefit from — their companionship?

Frears carefully crafts Fazal’s performance to leave us guessing. At times, the man is too good to be true; then again, perhaps he’s merely modeling himself as the trusted friend that his “Empress” wishes him to be. It’s a fascinating role.

Although Hall’s script frequently holds Bertie and numerous other British aristocrats up for gentle scorn — we love it each time Dench’s Victoria waspishly, imperiously, puts them in their place, for daring to defy her — our easy chuckles take on a nervous hue as the years pass, and the film slides into its third act. These people do not react well to being embarrassed, and we begin to worry about the smoldering hatred directed ever more frequently — if always silently — in Abdul’s direction.

Some viewers also may become annoyed by this film’s revisionist undertone. Victoria’s growing fascination with All Things India — a large portion of her interest in Abdul — is treated as a measure of cultural respect, which is at odds with the brutal repression simultaneously taking place in India, under the British Empire’s merciless thumb. The dichotomy is a bit troubling, as we’re left to wonder whether Victoria is naïvely unaware of what’s happening in India — which seems unlikely — or simply untroubled by her hypocrisy.

In interviews, Basu has insisted that this was a relationship of equals, but — as the film proceeds — we can’t help feeling that Abdul is little different than a lavishly dressed zoo creature, allowed access to (among other royal dwellings) the opulent, but still restrictive, comfort of the newly commissioned Indian wing of Victoria’s beloved Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. This uncertainly definitely adds a layer of intrigue to Frears’ film.

Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar are deliciously fluttery, condescending and spiteful as, respectively, Lady Churchill and her constant companion, lady-in-waiting Miss Phipps. They’re like the wicked step-sisters from “Cinderella”: almost figures of pity, in their helpless wrath. (Almost.)

Tim Pigott-Smith is equally memorable as the hapless Sir Henry Ponsonby, Victoria’s longtime secretary, who finds himself shunted aside when the Queen prefers to have Abdul at her side each day, as she tackles the contents of “the box.” (American fans of The Crown will know what that actually involves; newcomers may be somewhat mystified.) Poor Sir Henry too frequently winds up in the middle, between Victoria and Bertie; Pigott-Smith handles this discomfort with pluperfect British aplomb.

Michael Gambon is appropriately larger than life as the imperious Lord Salisbury. Izzard, finally, leaves no doubt that Bertie is not to be trifled with ... and that he’ll carry grudges. His stern gaze grows increasingly worrisome.

The film’s technical credits are sumptuous, with high marks going to production designer Alan Macdonald, for the fidelity with which he and his team recreated the opulence of key settings in England and Scotland, along with the intimacy of Victoria’s favorite island retreat, Glassalt Shiel. Costume designer Consolata Boyle was kept equally busy, with both traditional British garb and Indian finery.

Thomas Newman’s delicate orchestral score is so subtle that it frequently seems to vanish, which — in one respect — is the highest compliment bestowed upon a film composer. Frears doesn’t manipulate our emotions with overstated musical flourishes; he lets the drama, and the performers, carry the film.

All this said, Victoria and Abdul will appeal mostly to avowed fans of British filmmaking and storytelling, with its measured pacing, understated performances and dry wit. Be advised: Frears’ film proceeds slowly. As captivating as Dench, Fazal and their co-stars are, there’s a Masterpiece Theater atmosphere of exaggerated dignity that’ll probably make it a tough sell, on this side of the pond.

More’s the pity.

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