Venice 2017: 'Victoria & Abdul' is an Immensely Charming, Moving Film
by Alex Billington
September 3, 2017
"I am cantankerous, greedy, fat. I am perhaps, disagreeably, attached to power. But I am anything but insane." Even if she is cantankerous and grumpy and stubborn and disagreeable, there's a sweet side to her, if only you can get close enough to experience it. Victoria & Abdul is the latest from veteran filmmaker Stephen Frears (who last made Florence Foster Jenkins). It tells the true story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria of England and a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim around the end of the 19th century. They become very close friends and this brings her much joy, but upsets the predominantly racist royal household around her. It starts out a bit campy, but becomes very charming once it gets into it.
Frears' Victoria & Abdul stars the wonderfully talented Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, and she is splendid, as always. Her co-star is Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim, and he's such a delight, carrying so much of the story with his warmth and patience. The two first meet when he is brought to England to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen. No one can seem to connect with her, but suddenly she takes a liking to him, eventually asking him to be her spiritual teacher in addition to one of her royal aides. This friendship causes problems with everyone else, mostly those who can't stand that a Muslim, or this Indian man (a lowly servant), is influencing the Queen. But, of course, their bond becomes stronger and the two leave a lasting impression upon each other. It's a very nice story about learning to be open to other cultures, and to open up our hearts.
As much as it at times seems like yet another typical story of unlikely friendship, once it really gets going, there's an immense charm to the film that becomes the most attractive aspect. Dench's performance is so stern and strong and unwavering on the surface, but she also allows us to discover her softer side buried deep within, and it's obviously Abdul who brings this out. There are a few beautiful scenes between them, seemingly simple but meaningful conversations as well as poetic moments, which Frears knows how to craft perfectly thanks to years of experience. It also moves at a steady pace, never wasting any time on excess or exposition. He let's the story blossom with time, like a true friendship, and it's easy to watch because of that.
The lovely score composed by Thomas Newman also enhances the storytelling, building with emotion in the right moments. Victoria & Abdul impressed me by how deeply moving it is, not only thanks to earnest performances, but by telling a streamlined story. It could've easily wasted extra time explaining the scope and scale of the British empire at the time, or the various members of the household and their roles, but it remains focused on Victoria and Abdul and their friendship. I suppose that's obvious based on the title, but to see this actually play out that way and still be as moving and charming as it is, is a notable achievement. I'm glad I took the time to watch this, because it was a worthwhile story to discover and enjoy experiencing. Don't expect an ambitious or edgy film, but for what it is, there's a vigorous charm to this that works well.
Alex's Venice 2017 Rating: 8 out of 10
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