Saturday, 30 September 2017

Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul (2017)



With how much time I spend at the cinemas as opposed to doing pretty much anything else, I end up relying a fair bit on my film intake when it comes to learning certain things. Things like foreign cultures and the history behind them. Because of this, especially when discussing historical films from other countries, I’ve wound up learning more about that history from films than anywhere else. For instance, through watching Bollywood films, I’ve gained a certain level of understanding concerning the cultural strain between the U.K. and India, like the line separating India and Pakistan from Begum Jaan. Of course, there’s also the element of bias to keep in consideration; no matter what is being depicted on-screen, there is always some level of creator bias involved, even with films based on historical details. So, basically, whatever I’ve picked up from films in regards to history is always packaged with an understanding that the real-world events may or may not have actually occurred as shown; it’s a weird tightrope to walk. It’s because of this I tend to be lenient with most biopics, at least in terms of accuracy to the real events, since films that are 100% true to the story are exceptionally rare. Tl;dr As we get into today’s film concerning a historical British monarch, I’m not going to focus too highly on historical accuracy; I’ll just stick with efficacy at storytelling as always. This is Victoria & Abdul.


The plot: By chance, record keeper Abdul (Ali Fazal) is tasked with going from India to Britain to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial coin. Over time, the two end up connecting, with Victoria enlisting Abdul as her tutor to teach her about the Indian languages as well as the Quran. As their friendship grows, Victoria’s son Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) and the rest of her household believe that Victoria’s connection with a servant is improper and needs to end by whatever means necessary.

This is a top-tier British cast and, thankfully, everyone on-screen seems to deliver. Dench’s past experience, both in regal roles and as playing Queen Victoria specifically, serves her well here as an incredibly frank and heartfelt depiction of the monarch. Fazal works very nicely opposite her and brings some definite oomph to the proceedings, even if his character’s subservience occasionally enters the realms of slightly troubling. Adeel Akhtar as Abdul’s tag-along friend Mohammed brings some of the funniest quips of the entire film and helps a lot with the film’s attempt at culture-clash comedy, something at definite odds with the fate and overall treatment of his character. Michael Gambon brings appropriate stuffiness as the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, same with Tim Pigott-Smith and Simon Callow who do much the same. Fenella Woolgar as easily the most sympathetic member of the house servants Miss Phipps is surprisingly solid, mainly because she delivers a lot of pathos in her rather small role. Her scene as a messenger for the household’s intentions with Victoria is quite gripping in how visibly shaken Woolgar performs. Without question, though, the highlight of the production is Eddie Izzard as Prince Bertie. Even with a cast largely comprised of people acting aghast at what’s going on around them, Izzard stands out with his perpetually annoyed and rather fiendish presence; it’s honestly weird that the biggest cunt of a character ended up being the most entertaining to watch.

After the sophisticate screwball offering of Florence Foster Jenkins, it is quite satisfying to see that Frears is still holding strong to those sensibilities. As much as I’ve already mentioned a certain monotony in the cast list, that ends up being a major boon to the film’s sense of humour; mainly, because most of the jokes are at their expense. Within moments of seeing the royal palace and its inner workings, there’s a definite sense of the tightly-choreographed schedule the Queen and her subjects run by, complete with a bizarre dining sequence that looks more like a speed-eating competition than anything assigned with royalty. It’s so stiff and, to be honest, unnatural that it’s little wonder that we see the Queen openly sleeping at the table. Thankfully, the audience isn’t likely to join her as, between the admissions of the wonky workings of top-down government and the comparisons between Indian and British societal norms, it rings true in a way that is more humourous than depressing. I feel kind of bad in hindsight for writing off Love & Friendship as the kind of film people laugh through their noses at, since this film works on the same methodology but does a far better job at it.

The biggest source of humour though, even more so than knowing laughs at the aristocracy, comes from the culture clash once Abdul and Mohammed enter the picture. To say that Great Britain and India have a complicated relationship is putting it incredibly mildly. With that in mind, it’s kind of interesting how the film juxtaposes norms between the two cultures. As Abdul and Mohammed discover more of what British society considers perfectly mundane, such as jelly made with animal by-products and even cultural cuisine containing sheep guts, it’s hard not to see the partisanship this story is carrying. Given how much I’ve praised Frears for his even-handedness in the past with Florence and even The Program, I really should be more annoyed with this than I am. Then again, that’d be undermining the fact that the film raises some decent points in the process. Even knowing the progress Western society has made in terms of racial politics (yeah, it’s still not great, but at least we’re at the point of recognizing sentience in non-whites), the way Victoria and Abdul’s friendship takes form through him teaching her about the Quran and the Taj Mahal, and her showing kindness in return, makes for a rather nice central couple. I say “couple” in the sense that these are two people, as the film thankfully doesn’t go down the romantic route and more of a familial “you’re like a son to me” one. Given the actions of Victoria’s actual son in the film, it’s too easy to see why she would appreciate that kind of connection.

I genuinely feel awkward talking about things that involve Islam to any great extent these days. The way that the religion has been used as a political battleground in recent years has made discussions involving it rather tiresome; people’s opinions are set in stone by this point, and nothing seems to result from the arguing aside from severe headaches. However, while I am still hesitant, I do feel it’s worth bringing up given how the film itself approaches the Muslim faith. It’s used as part of the culture clash, and eventually part of the underhanded dealings of the staff to get Abdul out of the picture, and while some points seem to be glossed over, the overall depiction is rather mundane. It’s treated like any other form of religion, with Victoria’s reasoning for learning about it and Abdul’s native language being rather sound. As the Empress of India, it only serves to reason that she would learn the language of her subjects; makes sense to me, at least. Once the persecution angle set in, the film truly enters its dramatic stride. When confronted with the dirt Bertie and co. dug up on Abdul, Victoria shuts them down with one of the most commendable self-aware monologues I’ve seen in a while. Part of it is in the trailer, but the normally-embarrassing details of the full version bring everything the film is building towards together: We are not perfect, so why do we expect everyone else to be? More to the point, since we are not perfect, who are we to deem others as lesser? It’s almost-painfully contemporary, to the point of making it too clear why we are getting this film released at the time it has, but it highlights an approach to racial politics that, quite frankly, more people should be using. There’s a reason I try and play down my own opinions and ideals in my reviews, and it’s the same reason that Dench’s performance rings as true as it does: It’s not hiding behind a pretence of “intelligence”, but rather just showing a point of view and the reasoning behind it; nothing more, nothing less. Huh. I guess Frears’ penchant for presenting frank honesty is still here after all.

All in all, while possibly disposable as a feature, it’s still serviceable in what it tries to say. The acting is excellent, with special mention to Dench and Izzard for being as engaging as they are, and the writing highlights a based-on-actual-events story (with the film even admitting straight-up that it’s only “mostly” based on reality) that makes a lot of sense in terms of showing why people shouldn’t act like dicks to other people. No doubt, this will get derided as ‘immigration apologetics’ or misrepresenting the real plight of Indians during the time, but for me personally, I enjoyed it for what it is: A well-delivered comedy of manners with touches of societal commentary. It’s better than Noor, which may have hit me even harder with its own centrepiece monologue but its general messiness as a narrative makes it lose in the comparison with this, a rather finely-crafted production and story. However, for as engaging as this is, it does end up losing steam once the mood turns away from comedy; Battle Of Memories, while reaching beyond its means at times, still managed to engage on a more intense and consistent level throughout.

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