In the Masterpiece Theater tradition, this film is a delight of performance and sight.
Victoria and Abdul
Director: Stephen Frears (Philomena)
Screenplay: Lee Hall (War Horse) from book by Sherabani Basu
Cast: Judi Dench (Philomena) Ali Fazal (Furious 7)
Runtime: 1 hr 52 min
by John DeSando
“I suddenly feel a great deal better.” Victoria (Judi Dench) after Abdul (Ali Fazal) kisses her slipper.
Such is the layered humor and drama in the fine period piece, Victoria and Abdul. It’s based on the true story at the end of the 19th century of her friendship with 24-year old Indian Muslim clerk, Abdul, who became her munshi or teacher (“Terribly handsome,” she says upon seeing him). Some may remember her similar connection with servant Brown in the film, Mrs. Brown, after her husband, Albert, recently died.
The joys of this docudrama are in the steely but sentimental queen, incomparably portrayed by Dench, and the production design and costumes. At one point we are at her real retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, a palace worth visiting by itself, notwithstanding the iconic Buckingham Palace. For further visual delight, see current The Viceroy's House with an Indian setting and similar production values.
The emotional core of the film is the joy Abdul brings her in the lessons he shares from his home, Urdu, the Quran, and mangoes, among other treasures. We learn, however, that political operatives are trying to prevent her friendship; almost everyone at the court has an ambitious agenda, and Abdul is virtually the only innocent. Even her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), is disloyal.
We know too little about Abdul because the limited exposition makes vetting him a challenge, at least for the audience. Yet, for the queen, loneliness is a constant companion, all the more reason for her to defend him, reject him, and defend him again against court intrigue.
The lyrical moments are of high order, such as when she sings, after prompting, “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from H.M.S. Pinafore. Dench pulls it off to make it sweet and affecting. That’s pretty much the spirit of the entire film: watchable, fun, melancholic, and clear on the loneliness of power.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com