Every year, British film studios treat American audiences to a bevy of multiple period pieces that pervade cinemas come Oscar season. Studios like BBC Films, Film4, BFI, Pathé and Working Title all have their stake in this massive market of films, including such Oscar-winners like “The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl,” “The King’s Speech” and just this year, major contender “Darkest Hour” seeks to snag Gary Oldman his first Oscar as Winston Churchill. Within this large sub-genre, a single filmmaker stands above the rest for his work for not only period cinema, but British cinema in general: Stephen Frears. Helmer of such films as “The Queen,” “Philomena,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Tamara Drewe.” These such films are all know for their undeniable charm that captures the essence of British cinema perhaps better than any other filmmaker of his kind. They find a balance between smile-inducing fluff and legitimate craft in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the quality of either in its wake. Returning to England after taking a short American break in the still British-French funded “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Frears hits the mark of what put him on the map as a director of this sub-genre: the monarchy, with “Victoria & Abdul.”
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is celebrating her Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of her reign as Queen of England, as well as the title of Empress of India, during British colonization. At an old age, she is lethargic, overweight and apathetic about her duties. During a meal in which an Indian waiter, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), presents her with a ceremonial coin, their accidental eye contact forms a bond that will follow both Victoria and Abdul forever. When their relationship moves past the normal servant-master relationship into a true friendship, this begins to concern the deeply ethnocentric entourage that accompanies Victoria. When Abdul’s race is used against him to split him and Victoria up, Victoria uses her power as monarch to ensure that Abdul remains in her presence until the very end.
Off the bat, I can’t go so far to applaud “Victoria & Abdul” for recognizing the effects of British colonization in India, as that’s not a high bar to clear, but the issue with so many period pieces is that filmmakers love to ignore the more unsavory aspects of the past, especially when it comes to European colonization and institutional racism in society. Do I believe everything that happened in “Victoria & Abdul?” No, nor was I supposed to, as the opening title card read “Based on true events…mostly.” While the film isn’t a scathing critique on the effects of British colonization, it does paint a rather unflattering picture of the mindset of many of the often glamorized members of British high society at the time, and the implications placed on these, even the Queen, who dare oppose the oppressive regime levied against people of color during the time, especially that of Muslim Indians like Abdul.
The biggest merits of “Victoria & Abdul” rest squarely on the shoulders of Dench and Fazal, both of whom represent everything their characters stand for. Dench, a veteran actress, popular for decades and growing old in age, uses the wisdom of her past of playing Queen Victoria previously to build a wonderfully deep and occasionally painfully heartbreaking picture of the second-longest serving monarch in English history. This is a broken, tired, bored woman who only looks for a shard of brightness to cheer up her lush, if monotonous life. Fazal, on the other hand, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the world through Abdul’s eyes. He faces much criticism and discrimination in the film, mostly at the hands of those closest to Victoria, but his love and respect for the Queen keeps him going, as long as she keeps going. The chemistry between these two is undeniable and arguably one of the better dynamic duos seen in any film this year.
In addition to these two, Eddie Izzard also casts an unlikely performance as Edward VII (before he was queen, simply as Bertie, Prince of Wales) and gives one of the more inherently repulsive performances of the year. Coming from the incredibly funny and likable Izzard, this was a captivating, if terribly disconcerting performance to watch.
Beyond this, “Victoria & Abdul” is almost endearingly typical of a British period piece and an incredibly on-brand take for Frears as a filmmaker. On one hand, I do wish the film had a bit more flash to it, but for what it’s worth, when it comes to Frears’s consistency as a director, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The thing with the typical nature of films like this is that they’re often times impossible to dislike on a technical level. They’re almost always impeccably shot and edited, with lush and masterful takes on production and costume design, which is no different here in “Victoria & Abdul.” This is a lush, beautiful film that really does look the part, as if anyone expected anything different.
In addition to looking the part, “Victoria & Abdul” also sounds the part with a wonderful score from Thomas Newman. More orchestral than someone like Alexandre Desplat would go for in a piece like this, it really does do quite a wonder when the film does get to its more serious moments. Newman is a composer who can balance the lighthearted and darker tones really well, especially when it comes to using both in the same sound, but really shines in the more dramatic moments of the film.
And there are quite a few dramatic moments to speak of here. This is a film that doesn’t mince words when it comes to the treatment of Abdul in England. Things aren’t always rosy for either of the two leads and some heavy emotion does come into play in many scenes that one might not necessarily expect from a film such as this, at least not in nature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s pretty damn depressing.
In the end, “Victoria & Abdul” left me with the sensation of wanting to cry. The sheer sadness of Queen Victoria in her later life and the berating of Abdul by the royal household, despite nothing but the best of intentions for Queen, simply left me feeling downtrodden, even in some of the happier moments of the film. But perhaps that’s the strongest part about the film, in that Dench and Fazal can elicit such emotion from my end and really make me feel for both of their characters in similar fashions for entirely different reasons. It’s not quite accurate, nor does it really portray the relationship between England and India in the fashion that it truly was, but it’s a relatively inoffensive film with no ill will. This is a film you’ve seen before and will see again and again in the coming years, but “Victoria & Abdul” does pack more of a political and emotional punch than your typical period piece, provides audiences with the expected consistency of any BBC Films/Working Title period piece from Frears, even if the final effect is a bit more heartbreaking than it is heartwarming.
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, and Michael Gambon.
Runtime: 112 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.
Now playing exclusively at the Regal Manor Twin & Ballantyne Village, AMC Carolina Pavilion and the Ayrsley Grand.
Focus Features presents, in association with Perfect World Pictures, and in association with BBC Films, a Working Title production, in association with Cross Street Films, a Stephen Frears film, “Victoria & Abdul”