Victoria & Abdul - This Royal Movie Has Enough To Rock
Dir: Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Piggott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Michael Gambon, Adeed Akhtar
Stephen Frears is a curious old cove when it comes to British cinema. In a recent interview shortly before he collected an award at the Venice Film Festival, he fully admitted he is a journeyman director. A filmmaker with no discernible agenda or even style. But yet the man has amassed a very strong body of work – admittedly one that is often punctured by lesser work. But when you look at the best – from My Beautiful Launderette to The Queen to Dangerous Liaisons to Prick Up Your Ears to Philomena – there are themes that resonate through all, those of questioning and more often defying the prevailing nature of the status quo, the need to understand cruelty behind preconceived attitudes and approaches. (That said, his finest film, High Fidelity has nothing to do with that and probably more to do with John Cusack and his mates writing the screenplay – which takes us back to the whole journeyman thing.)
That said, whilst Victoria & Abdul once again touches on those themes, it’s not up there with the man’s best works – although it does have its moments. And most of them come in the first half.
And that first half is very funny indeed, with Frears and his screenwriter Lee Hall conceiving of the whole story of how an aged Queen Victoria found herself falling for a young Indian man, on hand to open her eyes to the world she had ruled over but never really experienced. The filmmakers determine to play it as a comedy of manners and the extreme, almost ridiculous sense of formal protocol that surrounds the monarch allows Frears to show what an able and highly economic filmmaker he can be, encouraging his camera to swoop over events to find the ridiculousness within. It’s a lovely set up and one that then adds the charge of Judi Dench reprising one of her signature roles. Although she mentions John Brown at one pivotal moment, Dench’s take on the Queen Vic here is a world apart form her trying to deal with her grief-inflected love for Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown. Here she finds the monarch far more defeated, trapped in the longevity of her role, heading towards the end but finding one last thing to possibly love, certainly be intrigued by. That would be Abdul, who is played well enough by Fazal, but never really finds true substance in the film.
Which renders the film uneven as it progresses, and protestations are raised in the Royal household over this new relationship. Despite an impressive turn from Izzard as the future King, and Piggott-Smith in his last role as the perplexed advisor, the film dwindles, much as Victoria does.
Don’t get us wrong – there is a lot to like here. But it’s very much the final story of a long life. Which, in this case, makes it not necessarily the best story.
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