I saw Thor on Thorsday. Yeah. I did that thing. But I don’t want to review Thor. It was exactly as advertised. Go see it if you wanna. Don’t take your 13yo as it’s more vulgar than necessary. And there are more than enough folks that will do an NFL playoff style wave while singing Thor’s praises or lamenting the failings. I don’t really think you need me to contribute to that noise.
What I want to root for and review is Victoria and Abdul.
Quick review: 4.5/5 stars. This is such a fresh, beautiful portrait of two people finding real emotional intimacy and connection in a nonsensically harsh environment: British court life. The story, which the opening screen tells us, is “Based on actual events…mostly.” It is the result of newly found journals, but there were a boatload of historical gaps that they had to fill dramatically. They did it well. The characters are raw and real- more on that below, the cinematography is stunning in places (man do I want loch front property in Scotland), and the pacing was unexpectedly well wrought. Go see it. If you can only see one movie between now and when all the Christmas stuff comes down the pike, make your dollars speak for this film.
Now for details and spoiler-y things.
When is Judi Dench not amazing? Trick rhetorical question. Don’t speak. Just bask in how prefect she is inhabiting the role of Victoria again. Her delivery of the speech given to her son, her head of household, and her physician upon learning they want to have her committed if she doesn’t dismiss Abdul is the most authentic blend of the cantankerous monarch of lore and the British reserve and dignity that you know a monarch can possess when needed is so spot on that I think i heard Victoria’s ghost politely applauding in the back of the theater. He ability to inhabit the emotions and moments of the character lets you forget it’s Judi. And that is the highest skill any actor can have, that you forget them and you know only the character until the lights go up. the way Victoria is rendered is more than a little heartbreaking. She is ignorant about most of the empire she reigns over. Is surprised by the lengths those around her will go to protect their status quo. And yet she displays little prejudice and a real curiosity when presented with an opportunity to learn that which she does not know. She can give as good as she gets. The number of times Her Royal Majesty earned an audible “Oh snap,” from me perturbed my geriatric neighbor.
If I have a bad thing to say about it, and really it’s not about Judi so much as costume and make-up, it’s that they never managed to make me believe that the extra weight of the fat suit was hers. I never quite bought the morbid obesity and the greedy gorging in the film. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen how normally proportioned Judi is in the really real world, but I never quite got behind that as anything other than a prop signifying over-weightness.
OK, time talk about Ali Fazal. Relative new-comer stateside, but there better all the awards for this guy. ALL OF THEM. He conveys a complexity of emotion along with an irrational optimism that is such a joy to watch. More over he brings the layers of a real person to life. Not a scrubbed Indian stereotype, but a real, imperfect person. He makes mistakes, omits information, lies on occasion, breaks a promise that leads to a friend’s death. But he is also kind, gracious, grateful, respectful without being toady, and knowledgable about his home and his people. He is devoted and loyal despite having his own concerns and private information. I think Ali Fazal will be a household name someday soon.
Eddie Izzard petulantly prancing about as Prince Bertram, who is inarguably the demon of the film, is the character you love to hate. He brought about the moment I got most emotional, the expulsion of Abdul and his family after Victoria’s death. He is the reason we didn’t know this story after all we knew about Victoria and the stories that have been told of her again and again, this relationship at the end of her life was not known until Abdul’s journals came to light in 2010.
There are more than a few laugh worthy moments, and a strangely heroic moment when an ill-treated Indian servant, Mohamed, refuses to “dish the dirty” on Abdul to the prince and the head of household. He is offered the chance to go back to India with a monetary stipend. It is all he has wanted the entire film. Yet he rejects the offer, takes the opportunity to tell the prince what he really thinks of England’s contesting ways, and seals his own death in England. He is, I think, the only hero of the story. Everyone else lets each other down in one way or another. And though he often reminds me of a cross between Grumpy and the average civil rights activist, he doesn’t take a chance to betray the man who promised him they would go home, and lied.
I love the way the screenplay sticks a pin in the racial inequities and biases of the time while neither glossing over or harping on them. The moment of costume choosing, and the tailors insistence that everything “look” authentic even as Abdul tells him that the sash element is not is a perfectly tongue in cheek way of acknowledging that there were indeed deep cultural biases at play, while simultaneously allowing the audience to move beyond that nonsense just as the characters do. There are relationships to build, and so we roll our eyes at the court’s instance that the way things appear are more important that the way they are, and get on to the people that matter, just as Abdul does. His refusal to be angry is an immediate endearment to a white audience member like me. His continued humanity despite this lack of anger, seems to be an answer to any who would claim that he is cardboard cutout, meant to appease any hard feelings.
One more little note, and perhaps it is ageist of me, but I do not mean it as a sign of disrespect for my elders. My husband and I were the youngest people in there and as a result there was the distinctive scent of the elderly with us in the theater. There were moments when they would close up on Dame Judi and some elderly neighbor of mine would shift about at the same time giving me a fresh whiff of the aged. It was like she was there with me. I think someday 4D will be entirely smell enhanced, and we will associate characters with their cologne and settings with their smells. Tonight I got a hint of that I think and it enhanced rather than detracted from the experience. It was like this tough, old woman was really in my face.
What do you think the future of entertainment will bring? What are the unexpected friendships that have flavored and changed your life?
Until next time, enjoy the show.