Victoria and Abdul: jaggedness amongst the japes
Victoria and Abdul (PG, 106 mins) Directed by Stephen Frears ★★★★
A cynic might be tempted to imagine the bowels of the British libraries and archives are these days permanently jammed with aspiring screenwriters frantically hunting for any nugget of Queen Victoria's life that has not yet been turned into a movie.
And, to be honest, the trailer for Victoria and Abdul didn't fill me with much hope that I was about to see anything other than some wildly fictionalised historical, platonic rom-com of stereotypes and caricatures propping up the mainstream British film industry until the next round of funding and tax breaks comes onstream.
But, with Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, The Grifters) in the director's chair and writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) at the laptop, Victoria and Abdul turns out to be a far fuller, edgier film than the marketing ever really hinted at.
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Abdul Karim was an attendant and tutor to Victoria over the last decade or so of her life and reign. How he came to occupy the position and how he was treated by Victoria's family and retinue was a story lost to history until 2010, when his private journal was discovered. All the official correspondence and evidence of Abdul's service was destroyed after Victoria's death in 1901.
The story could yield several interpretations, but Hall and Frears have chosen to make their film an allegory of the cruelty and preposterousness of imperialism, coupled with a virtual sequel and partial retread of the 1997 film Mrs Brown.
Reprising – arguably – her interpretation of Victoria, Judi Dench probably already has one hand on the Bafta. And quite right too. Next to Dench, Bollywood star Ali Fazal is terrific as Karim. The usual rolodex of Brit thesps fill out the supports, with Eddie Izzard standing out as a boo-hiss Bertie, Prince of Wales and Michael Gambon as effective as ever as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.
Expecting to be entertained, but hardly engrossed, I walked out of Victoria and Abdul impressed by a film that went a few places this genre generally couldn't find with a map. The film is fun to watch, but there is a gratifying amount of shade and jaggedness among all the expected pageantry and japes as well. Recommended.