Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
VICTORIA & ABDUL
I’ve always had a soft spot for films featuring an unlikely friendship. Dogs befriending cats? Good. A boy connecting with an alien? Wonderful. Irascible elders befriending younger whippersnappers? Even better! Spotlighting these types of relationships is crucial to humanity, compassion and empathy. Director Stephen Frears, now known for directing films featuring an older woman and younger man, tested the waters in this cinematic subgenre to great success with 2013’s PHILOMENA (or “Philomania!” if you’re Leo DiCaprio) and last summer’s FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. However, now a greater age disparity is featured in VICTORIA & ABDUL. Packaged tightly with endearing charm and soul-gratifying beauty, this British drama eschews all aristocratic stuffiness, favoring humor and earned poignancy. This little-discussed real life friendship between nobility and a servant is truly moving – and will be this awards season’s crowd-pleaser.
“Based on a true story… mostly” touts the title card that cheekily ushers us in. It’s 1887 and Britain has ruled India for almost three decades. Lowly government clerks Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) have been sent to present Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench), who’s long been thought of as their people’s oppressor, with a special medal. However, inadvertently flouting the royal formalities leads Abdul into a surprising friendship with the elderly ruler, who’s been bored stiff by years of protocol. Before he appeared, there was no spring in her step, no joy in her life and, well, no movement in her bowels. Yes, Frears’ attempt at scatological humor is magnificent. Abdul is quickly crowned the Queen’s “Munshi,” or spiritual advisor, teaching her how to speak and write Urdu. Though they were only supposed to stay a few days, Abdul and Mohammed’s stay extends years. As Mohammed grows weary, homesick and physically ill, Abdul rises in the ranks and the Queen’s favor. But his warm and loving presence is unwelcomed by Victoria’s jealous, sniveling son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) and their small-minded staff members (played by Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar) .
At first glance – courtesy of the period setting and the narrative’s conservative nature – you might be quick to write this one off as cloying “Oscar bait.” Don’t! It’s really not, although I’m sure they wouldn’t refuse a golden trophy or the attention. There’s much more dry wit, jovial frivolity and surprisingly timely socio-political conflicts than you’d have thought. Points for spotting racist policymakers and allusions to “Nevertheless she persisted,” but also don’t let that intimidate your need for cinematic escape. This is really a charming, warm and easily accessible story. From Mohammed’s zingers and reluctance, to the Puccini concert scene, to Bertie’s chagrin, these moments ease open the door for when the comedic elements turn serious.
Dench is at her finest here as the formerly besotted Queen. Bow down. She hits all of her practically patented notes with an enigmatic air of superiority, condescension and delicious dry wit, yet infuses her performance with a comforting warmth, sweetness, strength and vulnerability unlike anything we’ve seen before. There’s no better person than Dench to be our avatar, chastising fellow aristocrats for being racist jerks. It’s oddly satisfying given our powerlessness to do so with our current leaders. Similar to her character’s re-invigoration and reinvention, we too feel like we’re seeing the actress’ renewal of spirit and fearless independence. It feels inspiring. Plus, I dare you not to think she should co-star in the next Madea movie when she says the ten dollar word, “churlish.”
Other highlights include Danny Cohen’s shifting cinematography painting the canvas. Victoria and Abdul’s heart to hearts in the gardens, at her desk, and in the Scottish highlands wouldn’t have felt nearly as intimate without the palette of golden warmth or chilling cold. Consolata Boyle’s costume designs are supple and sumptuous. You can almost feel the itch of the Scottish wool Abdul is forced to wear at one point. Daniel Phillips’ hair and make-up also proves intrinsic to the ensemble’s performances – particularly Dench’s, as her fierce bravery shines through without much of a mask to cloak her raw emotions in her many close-ups.
Bertie may have sought to erase this footnote from England’s history; however, in time the tale and lessons held within have only grown stronger – especially through the power of cinema. This film allows Abdul’s narrative to be reclaimed, just like the vibrancy he brought back to the progressive monarch through friendship. Over a hundred years later, it’s a cinematic medal of honor being returned.
VICTORIA & ABDUL opens in NY and LA on September 22, expanding wider within the following weeks.