Venice + Toronto 2017: Frears’s Victoria & Abdul

Writing for Screen,Jonathan Romney takes on the latest film by Stephen Frears: “Judi Dench as a weary Queen Victoria whose joie de vivre is restored by the tender attentions of a devoted servant. . . . Yes indeed, we have been there before, in John Madden’s 1997 Mrs. Brown.Victoria & Abdul is pitched almost as a satirical sequel, and of course admirers of Dame Judi will rush back to see how, two decades later, she builds on the same role as a study of mortality, vulnerability and brittle self-knowledge. Yet ultimately, the film’s lavish production values and a comic register more impish than truly acerbic makes this a surprisingly cosy piece of luxury heritage cinema from a director who has cast the monarchy in a bracingly chilly light in The Queen, as well as offering a pioneeringly edgy picture of British Asian culture in My Beautiful Laundrette.

Victoria & Abdul “is a cloth-eared Gunga Din tale, painted up as a chaste romance and charting the true (but never convincing) friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian Muslim,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “It’s only Dench’s shrewd, affecting performance that keeps this sorry affair on its feet. Our nominal hero is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), plucked out of Agra to present HRH with a commemorative coin at a golden jubilee banquet. Victoria, poor soul, is deep in decrepitude, a shrunken white toadstool at the head of the table, but she perks up like a teenager when she claps eyes on Abdul. She thinks that he’s handsome whereas he lives to serve, promptly groveling on the ground in order to kiss the royal boot. So this is a match made in heaven: the flattered old monarch and her eager young lickspittle.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin will grant that the “hot-and-cold screenplay by Lee Hall (War Horse,Billy Elliot) lets Dench use her last, much-celebrated appearance as Victoria to her advantage: this film is, after all, something of an encore, and by reminding us that we were standing here with her twenty years ago, her reflections on time’s passing pack a brawny emotional wallop. . . . The role you really want to see Dench play is Victoria unairbrushed—and make no mistake, she would have been more than up to the task.”

“Surprisingly,” finds Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa, “Frears makes Her Excellency oblivious to the atrocities being carried out in her name across the globe. It’s as if the film can’t deal with Victoria’s actual colonial legacy, as it paints her as the liberal heroine who makes friends with people from other cultures. With such a premise, the tone of the film almost inevitably has to be pitched as a light-hearted comedy.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman notes that “in the couple of decades since” Mrs. Brown, “Dench has played nearly every role as if it were a species of misbehaving royalty . . . And then there’s Abdul. He is tall, twinkly, and yummy handsome, with thick shiny black hair and a beard that makes him look like Paul McCartney in Let It Be. The Indian actor Ali Fazal, a Bollywood star who made his Hollywood debut in Furious 7 (2015), plays him with a sing-song voice and a polite sweetness that never lets up.”

“Naturally,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “the contentment of the queen and her reliance on the outsider, to the virtual exclusion of all others, pose too great a threat to the Prime Minister and the royal household, whose unrest is stoked by the return of Victoria's son Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). Channeling his inner Oliver Reed, Izzard glowers with great panache, conveying the festering frustration of a man tired of waiting for his seemingly immortal mother to move on and hand over the crown. If the film seldom moves in any surprising direction, nor does it ever stall.”

“When treating a subject as fraught as British imperial rule, when does a film’s benign inoffensiveness become offensive in and of itself?” wonders Ben Croll at IndieWire. “Still, that’s about the only food for thought in what is at once a breezy, lion-in-winter vehicle for Judi Dench in queen-mode and a ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Noble’ bit of wealth porn, and not much more.”

“There’s not much to Victoria & Abdul,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap, “but as a delivery system for Judi Dench, it serves its purpose. Otherwise, it’s just Buckingham Palace fetishism cranked up to peak mumsy.”

“This is kid-gloves historical storytelling,” agrees Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “It’s sometimes amusing, and occasionally touching, but there’s nothing here to scare the horses.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 1/5), Filippo L’Astorina (Upcoming), and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, B-).

Update, 9/15: “Semi-attempting to depict a balanced, mutual friendship between two people in incredibly disparate positions, Victoria & Abdul never deigns to truly criticize British colonialism,” argues Chelsea Phillips-Carr in Cinema Scope. “Occasional verbal jabs made by Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), another Indian servant, are depicted as neuroticism, given that he is played like a paranoid wreck; his critique becomes a comedy of anxious irrationality in the face of the benevolence of the ‘Empress of India.’”

Update, 9/17: “The film takes great pains to absolve Victoria of colonial responsibility, painting her, bizarrely, as tolerant and reviled for it,” notes Simran Hans in the Observer. “‘I’m hated all over the world and here,’ she insists, describing herself as a ‘fat, lame, silly, impotent old woman’ hankering ‘to be oneself and live a simple, rudimentary life.’ This kind of historical revisionism is a stretch that, at best, works as a cute royalist fantasy and, at worst, dresses up its endorsement of colonialism and empire as something progressive.”

Updates, 9/18: “It pretends to be a progressive skewering of colonialist attitudes,” writes Kenji Fujishima at Slant, “but ends up being as condescending to its central character of color as the discriminatory Brits it purports to critique.”

“Frears does run through the culture-class business with energy,” grants Jesse Hassenger at the A.V. Club, “faring best when playing up the movie’s comic side: cutting to a doctor fleeing an intimate sight, or suddenly panning to reveal an extra character in the frame. But, presumably because Dench is so famous for queenly roles, Victoria is allowed a certain seriousness and depth that throws the movie out of balance.”

Update, 9/21: “In the shift from comedy to drama the movie goes wobbly,” writes Glenn Kenny in the New York Times. “The narrative of cross-cultural understanding by way of individual affinity is a comforting but ultimately dubious one. The notion of Queen Victoria as the most progressive figure of the Victorian age is also peculiar. But this is a handsomely packaged collection of such notions, and will provide genteel entertainment to those of a mind to swallow them.”

Updates, 9/24: “The enormous supporting cast mugs splendidly,” writes Ella Taylor for NPR. “Fenella Woolgar purses her lips on demand as the prissy head housekeeper, Miss Phipps. Michael Gambon huffs and puffs (‘The Boers are acting up again’) as Lord Salisbury, and Simon Callow, at once hilarious and in excellent voice as the composer Puccini, lives it up briefly as the only reason for carrying the plot to Italy.”

When Puccini sings, Queen Victoria “returns the favor by straining to warble Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘I’m Called Little Buttercup,’” notes Susan Wloszczyna at “Much like this often-endearing portrait of an odd-couple relationship, it is a little off-key but well worth the experience.”

Jose Solís talks with Frears for the Film Stage and, at Vulture, Jackson McHenry notes that Dench has been having a grand time on this promotional tour.

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