Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of VICTORIA & ABDUL: A Monarch and her Munshi

October 10, 2017

I had always liked those genteel British films showing their respect for their royal tradition and fastidious rules of ceremonial etiquette. After a long dearth of seeing such films on local big screene, along came of trailers of this charming movie by Stephen Frears about an elderly Queen Victoria who developed a friendship with a young Indian servant. This was only going to be shown as an exclusive feature in a few theaters. Lucky I got to catch it today, on what may be its last day.

It was 1887, the 50th year of Victoria as Queen. By then, the octogenarian Victoria was a very lonely and cantankerous queen until a handsome and charming Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim caught her attention when he presented her a gift during one feast. Abdul's refreshing candor revived the senior monarch's  joie de vivre as she enthusiastically took lessons on Urdu and about the Koran from Abdul. She even called him her "munshi" ("teacher" or "spiritual mentor"), much to the distress of the racist royal household. 

In her scene-stealing, Oscar-winning 8-minute long appearance in "Shakespeare in Love" (John Madden,1998), Judi Dench portrayed Queen Elizabeth I. This time, her role as another iconic queen, Victoria, would have her onscreen for almost the whole two hours running time showing exactly why every Judi Dench film is a must-see. Her Queen Victoria was a lonely and cantankerous queen until Abdul revived her joie de vivre. Dench portrayed that reawakening so vibrantly. It seemed so magnificently effortless. 

Dench had already played Queen Victoria before in another John Madden film, "Mrs. Brown" (1997) Coincidentally, it was also about the sad newly-widowed Queen and her close friendship with her late husband's Scottish manservant named John Brown. The conflict of the story in this new film actually paralleled that of "Mrs. Brown" a lot, since John Brown also wielded a lot of influence over the Queen's decisions, like Abdul did. "Mrs. Brown" earned Ms. Dench an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, as this current one may well lead to another nomination as well.

Ali Fazal  is such a joy to watch in the first act of the film as the winsome Abdul, a guy who was just too happy to be in the royal presence and relished every moment of his adventure, not fearing to break protocol. Fazal's charisma was such that we do not wonder why the Queen would find him so fascinating despite their racial and social class differences. However, as the character of Abdul took on darker tones as the film went along, the energy of Fazal's performance went down along with it.

The arc of Abdul's story unfortunately also reflected on the whole film as well. I felt that the first half of the film was absolutely glorious with its infectious sense of humor in its comedy of manners. I had a smile on my face throughout these scenes recounting their first meeting, their trip to windy Scotland, their first lesson in Urdu, the Queen first learning about the mango, singing with Puccini in Florence. (Certain contentious matters about British occupation of India were taken rather lightly, but to be fair, these were not ignored.)

However, as Abdul increasingly gained the Queen's confidence, one cannot also help but feel that he was already taking undue advantage of the Queen's kindness towards him, even when her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, and the rest of the household was obviously against it. When lies get into the way of their friendship, it did not feel too good to watch anymore by the third act. However despite this, it was also in the downbeat of Act 3 that the triumphant acting performance of Dame Judi Dench also became absolutely exquisite. 

Of course, the breathtaking cinematography of Agra, Isle of Wight and Balmoral also added to the immense appeal of the film as a whole. 8/10. 

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