Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith
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…a satisfyingly sweet confection which will find, and please, its audience.
Here we go again, another movie about the fat and insufferably regal Queen Vic having unlikely late life nookie with a commoner. This is the Indian Elephant in the room for British veteran director Steven Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) in making this historical romance cum costume drama. Back in 1997 there was John Madden’s Mrs Brown about her majesty taking up with the gardener. In that one the wonderful Dame Judi Dench previously played the queen in later life and it also tried to breathe life into an apparently true story.
This one has to stand on its own two feet of course, and, to be fair, it is not a bad effort. The big twist here is that the Queen falls for an Indian (and a Muslim to boot, although the contemporary resonances of that ‘clash of cultures’ is largely left unexplored). British cinema about India has a rich vein to mine given the complex interweaving of the two countries from the Raj onwards. There have also been scores of films and TV shows (from The Best Marigold Hotel to Jewel in the Crown) about this relation in which the exoticism of India and the irresistible appeal of its life force for the stuffy British allows for much wry self-flagellating enjoyment.
Even in this post-colonial age, the view of India can be vaseline-lensed – no Born into Brothels slum poverty here, only the rich fabrics and marbled gloriousness of Empire. The plot is elevator pitch simple: Victoria, as Empress of India, gets delivery of an Indian medal/coin and happens to fall for the handsome servant Abdul (Ali Fazal from 3 Idiots) who presents it. Fazal bears a slight but disconcerting resemblance to the great Indian batsman Verat Kohli. This Indian finds a different way to flay the hapless English.
The chaste romance is largely unconvincing if not downright embarrassing, but the film neatly sidesteps into some delicious light comedy about the sycophantic courtiers trying to outmanoeuvre the beaming Abdul. A host of fine Brit talents are on display and they relish every line. Needless to say, the costumes and sets are suitably sumptuous. If the whole thing is a confection it is a satisfyingly sweet one which will find, and please, its audience.