ALEXANDRINA IN LOVE
Victoria & Abdul
Review by Paul Preston
You know what you’re getting from a Stephen Frears movie – good actors and solid filmmaking. He does, however, mix up genres quite often, making intense thrillers like The Grifters and high drama like Dangerous Liaisons as well as lighter fare like Hero and High Fidelity. With Victoria & Abdul, Frears veers between comedy and drama in the same film, to mixed results.
Frears has covered ground with royalty before, with the near-perfect drama The Queen, and he returns to look at the English monarch in his new film, this time presenting a story about Queen Victoria at the turn of the last century and her friendship with an Indian servant, Abdul. Abdul was visiting from British-controlled India to present the Queen with a gift from his homeland when Victoria took a liking to him and asked that he stay and befriend her, teach her his language and otherwise occupy her time after her husbands have come and gone.
Playing Victoria is Judi Dench, also doing a return of sorts, having played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, a 1997 drama about Victoria’s second “marriage” to Scotsman John Brown (not to mention her Oscar-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love). Victoria had a penchant for upending norms and aggravating the elite family members and socialites around her, starting with that scandalous affair of sorts to Brown and continuing with her relationship with Abdul. Her family and close advisors want no part of Victoria spending so much time with a lower-class individual. This brings up all manner of dramatic moments, and all manner of humorous ones as well.
Some of the comedy works, as in Victoria’s love of food during the first big meal where she meets Abdul, and the Brits bending over backwards to appease her appetite while trying to remain civilized. Some laughs are attempted from when Abdul introduces his family to the Queen and the women are head to toe in burqas and scarves and that moment is a bit more off-putting (and it doesn’t make Abdul very enlightened, which leaves him a bit underdeveloped overall). The nobles running about and complaining about the unusual friendship between Victoria and Abdul is often played with comedy pacing and light music to where the threat by family and government officials to declare her unfit for her throne doesn’t pack the resonance it should. But Dench does. She brings fire and confidence to the Queen but balances it all nicely with an innate loneliness that needs healing.
The finale is not so much satisfying as it is sad. There isn’t much learned from their relationship. We, the audience, get what the takeaway is, but I wish there was more of an effect on the characters. Historically, The Queen milling about with a commoner from India was so frowned upon, much of their relationship was stricken from British history. Only recently did researchers learn more about Abdul and Victoria’s friendship and the rest was filled in by scriptwriter Lee Hall. Perhaps knowing more might’ve deepened the story’s context even further and allowed it to be more than simply “a feel-good movie”, but as is, Victoria & Abdul charms, but only on the surface.
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Release Date: October 7, 2017
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features