“Victoria and Abdul”

Published On September 29, 2017 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

VICTORIA AND ABDUL
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Paul Higgins, Robin Soans, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon
Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by Lee Hall
Based on the book “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,” by Shrabani Basu
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward
Director of Photography, Danny Cohen
Editor, Melanie Ann Oliver
Production designer, Alan Macdonald
Costume designer, Consolata Boyle
Make-up and hair designer, Daniel Phillips
Music by Thomas Newman

“Victoria and Abdul,” a beautiful, enriching, highly intelligent, moving and wholly entertaining historical drama about the late-in-life endearing platonic friendship between an aging Queen Victoria and a young writer and teacher from India, Abdul, is simply the best movie released so far in 2017. The film is so smart, insightful, perceptive, funny and dramatic, it’s an instant-classic that arrives highly-recommended for moviegoers of all types, ages and backgrounds—and “Victoria and Abdul” is also excellent enough that the film is easily already an early contender for several major awards during film’s awards season—in all the areas where the film succeeds, and that covers, simply, production, direction, writing and acting. “Victoria and Abdul” deserves to be a huge hit, should be a huge hit, and, if there’s any hope among filmgoers, the movie will resonate as a film that sends people out of the theaters with simply, but still also still quite deeply, a renewed, rejuvenated and re-charged appreciation for two of the absolutely most basic elements of life—true love and true friendship. And what’s more important than love and friendship? Not much, really.

For that is what, at its essence, “Victoria and Abdul” is truly about—finding real love and friendship in life. The movie sends an important message that people can indeed find love and friendship in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times in their lives, and that true love and friendship can indeed exist—nay, strongly exist–amid surface differences in age, gender, creed, nationality, background, race, class, life experiences, family situations, job situations and economic status. Again—how important a message is that? Very important, of course.

And “Victoria and Abdul” delivers this important message, lesson and theme in a manner that slyly, expertly combines the simple presentation of the basic simplicity of human emotions that exist in the hearts of people amid a sweeping, epic, grand historical backdrop that includes no less than an over-arching historical context of British global empire domination, British royal household and senior-level political maneuvering at the top levels of one of the most powerful countries on the planet, family politics amid one of the most powerful families on the planet; and underlying rising difficulties in the faltering, increasingly shaky—and ultimately foolhardy and ridiculous—British empire. Of course, that’s the essence of any superb historical drama—to present not just the over-riding historical elements, scenes, occurrences and action, but to also have at the core of the story real humanity, real characters, real character development and real relationships among people that moviegoers can relate to, connect with, and follow on a human scale. Too many historical dramas focus solely on just the history, just the action sequences, just the historical backdrop, somehow forgetting the human element. However, the better true-story-based historical dramas smoothly and seamlessly combine the history with real people with real feelings at the core—and that is exactly what “Victoria and Abdul” accomplishes. In fact, the friendship between Victoria and Abdul is really the main aspect of the movie, the main story and the main focus—to its credit—with the historical elements taking up the subplot role. Thus, the film shows that even amid the turmoil, chaos and political machinations of a crazy, ill-advised worldwide empire, at the heart of all of the insane politicking rests real, actual, living, breathing people—likeable people, in this case—who are, in the end, simply searching for the same goal as everyone else on the planet—a true connection of love and friendship in life.

It’s the late 1800s, and an aging, ailing and lonely—but still mentally sharp, insightful, smart and attentive—Queen Victoria is in her early 80s, she has been the monarch of the British Empire for more than sixty years, she commands an empire that spans the globe and includes an obscene number of the world’s population, she lives a life of extreme, high-level luxury, protection and bubble-world unintended insularity, she has a devoted staff who literally caters to her every need, want and desire, she has a royal set of palaces, houses, cottages and lands to rule in, rest in or escape to, she has nearly literally everything a person could want—and, alas, she is dreadfully, sadly lonely—alone, even. For it turns out her constantly attendant royal politicians, doctors, aides and servants are, at heart, a bumbling batch of buffoons—cowardly, deceitful, manipulative, hateful, racism—yes, racist—ignorant to a degree about the world despite trying to appear the opposite, and, at their worst, disrespectful, unprofessional and even treasonous to Queen Victoria. And what prompts most of this hatefulness, ignorance and racism? The very simple fact that Abdul—who in real life and in the movie becomes one of Victoria’s most trusted, honored, revered and loved aides, teachers and spiritual leaders—is a Muslim from India. And the fact that a Muslim from India has become one of Victoria’s most trusted aides, confidants and friends. The royal household, top-level British politicians and conniving, snaky members of the royal family so hate Adbul—simply because of his ethic and religious background—that they go slightly nuts, conspire and work against him and Victoria, and even go so far as to try and remove Victoria from the throne—under false, shaky and moronic circumstances. This pathetic, reprehensible royal, high-class-based hatred against a young man from India who actually befriended Victoria for literally no other reason than that simple fact that he revered her, cared about her, loved her as a friend and connected with her, is a clear representation of the utter stupidity, ignorance and insanity of pure racism, prejudice, bigotry and nationality-based, creed-based and religion-based hatred and discrimination. The movie succeeds at a deep, intellectual level in sending a clear message about the stupidity of racism, and the filmmakers are only to be praised for this successful theme.

Early in the story—a story based on true events, it must be noted and emphasized–Victoria notices Abdul at one of the many droll, over-produced, grossly over-extravagant royal ceremonies that Victoria must endure as part of her duties as the queen. She does notice that Adbul is a handsome man, but she also sees something else in the young man–the point must be expressed that the relationship between Victoria and Abdul was not a romantic or sexual one—Victoria simply saw an interesting young man from an interesting country—a country that Victoria happened to rule over and was the empress of–that she thought she could connect with in an interesting manner. And she was right—she took Abdul under her guidance and into her royal home, appointing him not as a simple servant to perform mundane tasks—Buckingham Palace surely had enough of those, too many, actually–but as a teacher, mentor on Indian cultural and political issues, confidant, ally and even spiritual leader. In a short time, and in an absolutely wonderful, beautiful, heartwarming development, Queen Victoria and Abdul indeed become fast friends—and, wouldn’t you know it, the friendship completely re-invigorates and re-charges Victoria during a time in her life when she was otherwise despondent, lonely and depressed. Victoria finds this young Indian man and his customs absolutely fascinating, and she urges Abdul to teach her his language, his customs, and all about India. And Abdul also connects with Victoria—again, as a friend—and he sees in her a regal, classy, stylish, intelligent and actually wonderful, caring woman who is simply without a soulmate, surrounded by sharks and snakes ever intent on closing in for the kill—and trapped in her silver-spoon, bubble-world, closed-off world of monarchy, ridiculous customs, royalness, stuffiness, snobbiness and, again, the political trappings of just happening to be the monarch, leader and queen of an empire that stretches across the planet.

Thus, Victoria and Abdul develop a true friendship for the ages—and it is such a delight and revelation to watch the filmmakers joyfully present this friendship in such an entertaining manner. For the film is indeed an historical, dialogue-based drama, with underlying elements of comedy and humor, but the film is never slow, stuffy, boring, overly talky or mired in just simply dialogue. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall, intelligently and expertly adapting his script from a book about the friendship, keep the dialogue, scenes, action, story, plot, subplots and characterization always energized, full of life, interesting, well-written, well-stated, eloquently-stated, and always moving forward as the story, plot and characterizations advance as the friendship between the queen and teacher is interestingly, intriguingly played out amid that mess of attendant political, royal household and royal family skullduggery, manipulations and conniving.

Judi Dench delivers yet another award-worthy performance as Queen Victoria, presenting the queen not as some strict, unapproachable, snobby royal queen far removed from humanity, but as a person who is exactly the opposite—a wonderfully likeable, approachable, kind, caring, intelligent, troubled, complex and powerful woman, leader and mother who is wise enough to know her station in life, to know what her country and its empire has become—which is something not so good and not so coveted after all—and wise enough to know that she is surrounded by those sharks and snakes, and, also, wise enough to know that what an aging, ailing monarch needs late in life is exactly what Abdul kindly, generously provides—a true friend. Victoria, as presented by Dench, is a likeable, reality-based human being—despite being a powerful queen presiding over an empire spanning the Earth. Dench—one of the premier actresses of this or any other generation on stage, on television and in film—presents Victoria as a person who is the same as any one of us—a person trapped by their surroundings and station in life, a person of power who knows there are few people she can really trust, and a person who no matter how powerful she is and no matter how luxurious a life she leads, can still be lonely, despondent, depressed and in need of someone who can simply provide—yet again—love and friendship. Dench’s performance deftly examines the vast complexities of any one human’s diverse personality and inner needs, showing a real person exists beneath all of the pomp and circumstance. Dench delivers a powerful, moving, deeply-emotional, layered and complex performance that anchors the film and the story. It’s truly a wonderful performance.

Ali Fazal—who, much like his character Abdul, in real life, had never been to England before filming the movie—perfectly captures his characters yin to Victoria’s yang—Abdul, much younger and seeing life from a far more positive and uplifting perspective than Victoria, is perpetually wide-eyed, positive, enthusiastic, upbeat and full of life, singing life’s praises in poetic phrases and terms that are not corny or tacky in the film, but representative of the romantic’s heart and soul that exist in the life of a writer, teacher and spiritual guide. Abdul is a writer at heart, and he sees Victoria’s predicament in a most positive manner, and he strives to reach out to this woman, help her, guide her, teach her—and lift her heart. And he succeeds—in the film and in real life. On one initial, surface level, it’s truly remarkable to consider that a young writer and teacher from India captured the heart of the queen of the British empire—but, again, on a deeper, more analytical, more intellectual level, it’s absolutely not remarkable that Abdul and Victoria connected as friends—because, again, the true-life story and the film’s story is all about the—again—simple fact that, in reality, when you strip away all of the ridiculous external trappings of power and stereotyping and class and religion and race and country-of-origin and skin color, people are people and anyone can be a friend with anyone else.

It’s a testament to the actor Fazal that he captures all of these complexities and layers of depth to Abdul’s character in his uplifting, life-affirming performance as Abdul. This young actor came to the set somewhat nervous about acting with the great, established Dench, but you know what? In real life, Fazal and Dench hit it off, as actors and as people and as friends, and they developed a real-life friendship that was similar to the friendship that developed between Victoria and Abdul, according to the studio production notes. That chemistry is clearly seen on screen, as the wonderfully positive, warm and emotional bond and connection between Victoria and Abdul is clearly delivered by Dench and Fazal, and it’s even clear that the actors were not only deeply engaged in their characters, but they were utterly enjoying themselves, this story, these characters—and this film. Thus, Dench and Fazal burst off the screen in acting performances that excellently provide the key foundation to the film, the story and the plot.

Poor actor Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Victoria’s immature, sneaky and utterly hateful son who eventually succeeded Victoria as King Edward VII, and poor actors Tim Pigott-Smith and Paul Higgins as two of the other high-level royal household sharks and snakes who hated Abdul and plotted against him and Victoria–they have to play characters who were, at heart, deceitful, manipulative—and openly racist and bigoted. Despite their performances resonating at a high level due to the actors’ equally high level of talent—and Hall’s consistenly smart, funny-at-times script–these characters remain watchable and entertaining—even though they are, at heart, unlikeable, sneaky toads. Izzard, Pigott-Smith and Higgins form a core royal household triple threat against Victoria and Abdul—but Victoria, smart as she was, counters their racism and stupidity at every turn. The continuing battle royale between Victoria and Izzard’s, Pigott-Smith’s and Higgins’ characters is a hoot—dramatic, tough, powerful and often flat-out funny.

And a sprawling, additional supporting cast of actors provide equally strong performances as, again, the various royal household workers and officials, British politicians and royal family members who are all so turned upsidedown by the friendship of Victoria and Abdul, the story lets viewers take turns being appalled at—and laughing at—these goofballs’ actions, racism and paranoia. Screenwriter Hall keeps the story, actions and dialogue alternately dramatic, serious and funny—thus, the movie strikes a great balance that keeps the movie, story and characterizations from being either too seriously dark or too broadly comedic. The tone is just right—equally dramatic, equally humorous at just the right times. And that’s how life is, too—alternately dark and funny. The best dramas refrain from being too dramatic, and always include a touch of humor, even amid the darkness. And that is exactly what is achieved in the script, dialogue and story crafted by Hall and Frears in “Victoria and Abdul.”

Director Frears took every precaution to craft and produce a superb film—including the aforementioned bevy of quality actors; the aforementioned smart, insightful and eminently human and humane script from Hall; strong direction that keeps the film moving forward despite being a mostly dialogue and talk driven story; and incredibly, breathtakingly elegant, rich, sumptuous and masterful production design, art direction, cinematography, music and editing—all are excellent and presented at the highest levels. Production designer Alan Macdonald utilized some of the most elegant and luxurious settings in England to provide the appropriate backdrop for a film set amid royal style and class—palaces, castles, offices, country cottages, carriages, parties, receptions, dinners, diplomatic meetings are all elegantly designed with painstakingly detailed period costumes, hair, make-up, props, jewelry, accessories and other elements of the late-1800s period in the film. The viewer is never in doubt that they are fully encased and enveloped in the upper-upper-class world of royal luxury and privilege when watching the film—that rich bubble-world is clearly presented throughout the film. In fact, that constant level of luxury is so overwhelming, it contributes to the isolation and depression that makes Victoria feel trapped and insular. Every scene, every setting in “Victoria and Abdul” is presented in a grand, glorious manner that highlights the grandeur of a faded British empire. The costuming is stunning, also—especially Victoria’s wonderfully, well, Victorian dresses and outfits, and Abdul’s beautiful Indian clothes and headwear.

“Victoria and Abdul,” of course, recalls director John Madden’s equally excellent film “Mrs. Brown,” from 1997—which told a very similar story. In “Mrs. Brown,” Victoria—also played by Judi Dench in another equally-excellent performance—also befriended a man who was also hated by everyone in the political realm, royal household and royal family. In that story, Victoria befriended a Scottish servant, John Brown, who was played by Billy Connolly. However, it must be noted and it will be noted clearly that “Victoria and Abdul” is not a repeat of “Mrs. Brown,” is not a reboot, is not really a sequel in any traditional sense, is not simply a replay of that earlier film, despite the similar stories and plots, and “Victoria and Abdul” is an excellent, individual film that completely, 100 percent stands on its own as its own outstanding production. And what makes everything interesting in relation to the similarities of the stories of “Mrs. Brown” and “Victoria and Abdul” is that they are true stories—absolutely true stories. Thus, the truthfulness of the stories themselves buttress the films from criticism that they are similar—because they really happened. Thus, you have two fascinating, interesting, but very different indeed, stories about Victoria simply having friendships that angered everyone around her. And in both circumstances, to her credit, Victoria was the victor, and she overcame jealously, deceitfulness, racism, stupidity and even treason and endured in her simple life quests to—again—have the same love and friendship that anyone else on earth wants in life.

“Abdul was 24 years old when he was sent from India to the U.K. He caught Victoria’s eye and was rapidly promoted,” says author Shrabani Basu, who wrote the book that the film was based upon, in the studio production notes. “Extra English lessons were arranged for him so that they could converse more easily. He gave her lessons in Urdu every evening. He read Ghalib’s poetry to her. The two of them became inseparable. Her household plotted against him, threatening that the Prince of Wales [Bertie’s title at the time] would have to step in. Victoria stood by Abdul like a rock.”

“The relationship between Victoria and Abdul speaks to, and about, different generations,” says producer Beeban Kidron. “Her age and his youth are no barrier to love, and they are both transformed by the experience, which was something new to them and something which we feel will be special for audiences as well.”

The filmmakers noted that, fortunately, Dench was excited to re-visit Queen Victoria twenty years after she played the character in “Mrs. Brown.”

“I was very pleased that this suddenly came up,” Dench says. “I had become absolutely absorbed in her story when we made Mrs. Brown and done all the homework, so, why say no? I admire Victoria as a remarkable person, and this was an irresistible story that had only recently come to light. With Shakespeare, you can come back to a play hoping that in the interim you’ve learnt something more about how to play the part. Whereas this was a proper progression for a real person. I had a sweet letter from [Mrs. Brown director] John Madden, who said he was so glad I would be revisiting Victoria.”

The two stories’ respective central relationships crystallized during very different eras in Victoria’s life, but Dench felt there was a connection, according to the studio. She explains, “Victoria was happy when she was with [her husband, Prince] Albert, and then [her Scottish aide] John Brown, and then Abdul. The continuity there is, she was relaxed, completely relaxed, in someone’s company without all the c—p of court, people saying, ‘You’ve got to be here at this time and there at that time.’”

When she met Abdul, Victoria was decades into her then-unprecedented reign of 63 years on the throne, the studio notes. “Victoria was a prisoner of convention, like most of us become,” reflects Frears.

“Can you imagine ascending to the throne at age 18 and remaining there forever after?,” asks producer Tracey Seaward. “Yet, in her 70s, she becomes a quiet revolutionary, learning Urdu and reading the Koran. Already a fascinating lady, she became even more so in her last years. She was the Empress of India, but she realized that she needed to know more about India.”

Playing out the unexpected connection and empowering friendship called for both actors to consider the growth of both characters, as an aging, ailing monarch saw the potential for change through a bright and youthful spirit—according to the studio production notes. “Theirs was an incongruous meeting,” admits Frears. “That’s what so satisfying about getting this story told. The nature of love is to change everything between two people, so Victoria & Abdul is most certainly a love story.”

Frears is familiar with this territory, and it shows in “Victoria and Abdul.” Frears also directed the award-winning and equally-excellent film “The Queen,” from 2006, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II.

Regarding “Victoria and Abdul,” Dench offers, “It was quite easy to imagine how Victoria, by then cross and a bit tired, suddenly looked up and saw somebody at last to talk to and somebody at last pleasing to look at. He came to the Golden Jubilee to present her with a coin, but, seeing him, she wasn’t so interested in the coin…Abdul was like an injection of youth and enthusiasm for Victoria. She could enjoy conversation with him, and he also afforded her something new to learn – language, culture. It was like a blood transfusion for her at that time. She adored him, and wanted to make the effort for him.”

As with Victoria’s other close relationships, latter-day discussion inevitably turns to questions of degrees of intimacy, the studio officials observe in their press notes. Kidron muses, “I believe theirs was an affair of the heart, and this is something that I believe audiences will respond to in Victoria & Abdul: two people can share respect and profound care and something that looks a lot like love, but it doesn’t have to be sexual. We each of us have loved people who we don’t have sexual relationships with and we have loved people that we might have if the circumstances were different. This is a universal experience, and one not very well-represented in films today, so I’m proud ours shows this.”

And what better words to leave with than these exceptionally intellectual, insightful comments from the filmmakers themselves? One can easily observe from these remarks that such smart, talented and creative people often end up making smart, talented and creative films, and that is indeed the case with “Victoria and Abdul.” To explore the simple human nature of love and friendship in such a caring manner in such an insightful and entertaining film, well, in a ways the viewer ends up feeling like they just made a new filmic friend, and that new filmic friend’s name is “Victoria and Abdul.”

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