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Victoria and Abdul

Victoria and Abdul Review by FilmZ

When it first showed up on the horizon, Victoria and Abdul seemed to be a plug and play Academy Awards contender: historical drama extolling racial diversity, directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons), starring seven-time Oscar nominee (and once-winner) Dame Judy Dench, and backed by a distinguished award-winning cast and crew.  As blatant Oscar-grabs go, only Steven Spielberg's The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks surpasses among 2017 releases.  And yet, although a dish may have the finest ingredients and arrive at the table with a beautiful presentation and rich aroma, the meal itself turns out good but not great.

Victoria and Abdul begins with scenes juxtaposing late-19th Century British pageantry and Indian subcontinent squalor.  In London, the Empire is in full flourish, but inside the Royal House, we find an aging Queen Victoria (Dench) has lost the will to live.  She is jaded, bored, and her children are disappointments, particularly heir-apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard).  Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon in a cameo) is concerned, as is Victoria's staff, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (the late Tim Pigott-Smith).  Fate intervenes when word gets back to India that the Queen was highly complimentary of several carpets gifted to her.  In response, India decides to mint a special coin commemorating her Jubilee, and they choose Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Akeel Akhtar) to present it to her.  Under strict orders to refrain from eye contact with Her Majesty, Abdul can't help himself, and when Victoria returns the glance and takes in the tall, handsome stranger, her will to live is rekindled.  She bids Abdul and Mohammed stay as her personal footmen throughout the Jubilee, but soon Abdul's gentle nature and exotic stories win her heart and she orders the assignment to become permanent.  Abdul's sweet innocence charms the Queen (think Rasputin if he were beneficent and servile).  The more influence (and prestige and power) the Queen grants him, the more indignant and scandalized the Royal household becomes, the more obstinately loyal the Queen becomes to Abdul, the more the household plots to bring Abdul down.  From that point, the story shifts from Masterpiece to Lifetime.  In service to the plot, most are reduced to caricatures: Victoria is regally quirky, Abdul is pureness and light, the household members bring a variety of racist aristocrats.

The quality of Victoria and Abdul comes from its first-rate cast and its production values.  Judy Dench brings her expected A-game, as does Tim Pigott-Smith, sadly, in his last role.  More surprising are Ali Fazal's enchanting turn and Eddie Izzard's surprising invisibility beneath the mustache and bluster of Bertie.  Akhtar provides one of the most powerful scenes in the film, standing defiantly against a Royal attempt to wheedle and then intimidate.  The rest of the supporting cast deserves recognition, as well: Paul Higgins as the flummoxed Dr. Reid, Olivia Williams as the snobbish Lady Churchill, Fenella Woolgar as a skittish Miss Phipps.  Alan MacDonald's production design, Sara Finlay's Art Direction, and Consolata Boyle's costume design bring sumptuous verisimilitude to both turn-of-the-20th-Century Britain and India.  We were unaware of the source material, so it is difficult to tell whether Shrabani Basu's book or Lee Hall's screen adaptation is responsible for the one-dimensional cultural stereotypes that wear threadbare by the film's final act.  Given all of the style, it's unfortunate that the substance didn't measure up because, in the end, it's about the story.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale (averaging my 7.0 and Filmzarina's 8.0)
7.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale -- Judy Dench has stiff competition for Best Actress, Tim Pigott-Smith possible for BSA, better chances for Production, Art, and Costume Design awards.


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