Capsule Review: Victoria and Abdul

Set in the late 1800s “Victoria & Abdul,” centers on the untold story of the hush-hushed relationship and special bond between an aged Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian servant, Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal). Sent from India for a medal ceremony as a stand-in for the day, the two opposites click so well that pretty soon the normally cantankerous Queen is happier than ever, learning Urdu and all about the Koran. Of course, her bigoted entourage is horrified, especially her successor Teddy, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) which has the royal household conniving their way to dismantling Victoria and Abdul’s affectionate friendship. By definition a crowd pleaser, “Victoria And Abdul,” is a mix of comedy, period costume drama: the kind of film Stephen Frears can pretty much craft in his sleep. However, that doesn't mean he should have a free pass.The film has it delights, and should please fans of his previous, safer efforts such as “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” and “Tamara Drewe,” sadly I wasn't one of them. The film's characters come off as rather caricatured and feel like they belong in a spoof rather than an actual movie. There are also problematic tonal shifts between comedy and drama which make the film feel unfocused and dismiss-able. Of course, Dame Judi Dench is at her absolute best, when isn't she, and she might garner another nomination come January, but did we really need another period-dramedy about the British monarchy which, yet again, refuses to delve deeper and ask questions about the cultural and philosophical tensions that come in being royal? The actual story of "Victoria and Abdul" is an important one, but it's constantly glossed over as the safe entertainment which has become customary of Frears this decade. It's also time to start asking if we should actually count Frears as an auteur. Are there any similar, noteworthy touches between, say, "High Fidelity" and "The Queen"? "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Philomena" ?  [C+]
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