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Monday, September 25, 2017


(Judi Dench & Ali Fazal)

If your appetite for England’s glitteringly costumed colonial past remains keen, Stephen Frears’s latest movie should be just the biscuit. (Review by Patrick Compton - 7)

England’s heritage industry shows no signs of flagging and Queen Victoria, 116 years dead, is still ringing up cash tills on TV and in movie houses around the world.

If your appetite for England’s glitteringly costumed colonial past remains keen, Stephen Frears’s latest movie should be just the biscuit. Following on from John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997), Victoria and Abdul tells the very similar (true) tale of Victoria’s last servant/suitor during the final years of her life.

This Working Title/BBC Films movie is adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) from Shrabani Basu’s book which makes use of the personal diaries of Abdul Karim which have only recently been unearthed.

It was a no-brainer for Frears to cast Judi Dench in the role of the queen, particularly after she had so memorably played the same part opposite Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown.

She is, predictably, superb as the initially sour, bossy and greedy monarch who has reached a dismal stage in her life where all the people she loved are dead and she finds herself surrounded by family and courtiers who seem impatient to be rid of her.

The early scenes show her during her Golden Jubilee in 1887 when she first meets the handsome Abdul (Ali Fazal), a clerk who has been sent over from India to deliver a gift to commemorate the occasion. The queen’s behaviour at the state banquet eloquently indicates her interest in eating (and sleeping) at the expense of conversation.

Abdul’s charm and (platonic) devotion, his enticing talk of silk carpets, mangoes and the Taj Mahal, as well as his offer to teach her Urdu, wins the lonely queen’s affections and she responds by promoting him to becoming her “munshi” (teacher), a recognition that doesn’t go down well with either her son, Bertie, or her jealous courtiers. Here the movie claims that despite her imperialist position as Empress of India, Victoria had no racist sentiments – unlike her courtiers.

The movie spends much of its time focusing on the internecine warfare at court in which the courtiers are portrayed as racist, intensely class conscious, pompous and conniving. Abdul, a Muslim, is not above the odd lie to gain preferment, but his loyalty to the queen shines through. If the movie does have a fault, it’s that the focus is too much on Victoria and her court, and not enough on the character of the somewhat enigmatic munshi which remains a little undeveloped.

The film has a distinguished cast of English character actors – including the late Tim Pigott-Smith in one of his last roles as Sir Henry Ponsonby, Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, Olivia Williams as Baroness Churchill and Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Prince of Wales – who all enjoy themselves and entertain us in their less than sympathetic roles. Abdul’s reluctant sidekick, Mohammed, is particularly well played by Adeel Akhtar.

One of the delights of these gleaming heritage films is their sumptuous look and Alan Macdonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s beautiful costumes are handsomely flagged as we follow the queen and her court to locations such as Balmoral in Scotland and Osborne House in the Isle of Wight.

Victoria and Abdul opens in Durban on September 29, 2017 – Patrick Compton.