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VICTORIA & ABDUL

SYNOPSIS:
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) strikes up an unlikely friendship with Abdul (Ali Fazal) a young Indian clerk. (Based on real events.)

Review by Louise Keller:
Everything hinges on the relationship between Judi Dench's Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal's Abdul in this winning tale about a bored monarch who gets a new lease of life when she befriends an Indian servant. Based on real events (mostly), the film's credentials are as impeccable as the queen's lineage, with Stephen Frears (The Queen) at the helm, a well-observed screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott), an intricate score by Thomas Newman (Skyfall) and a supporting cast that blends perfectly. On a backdrop of social class prejudices and racial discrimination, the diminutive Dench delivers a towering central performance in this scrumptious story about an improbable and extraordinary friendship.

The film takes flight from the moment Abdul (Fazal) and compatriot Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) arrive in England to present the Queen (the Empress of India) with a special medal as part of the Jubilee. The lower class Indians are like fish out of water amid the pomp and pageantry of court etiquette but there is a moment of connection in the key banquet scene in which Abdul's smiling eyes meet the Queen's. By the time he presents her with a platter on which a wobbling jelly trembles, their friendship has been begun. 'The brown John Brown' is how Abdul is described when inexplicably he becomes Queen Victoria's best friend, teacher and confidante, much to the consternation and horror of her whining son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), palace head Sir Henry (the late Tim Pigott-Smith), Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams) and the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon).

Like the Queen, we are enthralled by Abdul's poetic stories and descriptions of exotic spices and fruits. The best scenes are those between Dench and Fazal; they are an odd couple indeed - physically and ethnically. Watching the occasionally disagreeable, formerly bored monarch acquire a new lease of life is riveting cinema. Memorable moments include a picnic lunch in windy, wet Scotland amid the blush of heather and watch for the scenes in which the Queen decides to learn Hindi (or Urdu) and appoints Abdul as her teacher. The revelations about Fazal's personal life are best left to discover in the context of the film.

Frears judges the tone perfectly, offering a nice balance between comedy and drama and wrapping it all together with a rich emotional ribbon. Surprising, engaging, funny and poignant, this is a delightful film - and one to savour.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We're advised at the start that the film is 'Based on real events ... mostly', a wise admonition although the film is not tagged where it is 'least' or 'most' truthful and faithful to known real events. We can draw some comfort, though, from the information at the end of the film, that Abdul's private notebooks had been discovered.... Surely a source of some of the material. We have to take for granted that writer Lee Hall referenced those notes ....

Stephen Frears has managed the change of tones throughout with ease, as the film slides from frivolity to drama, from historic to histrionic. But the royal performance by Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is the crowning glory of the film, closely followed by Ali Fazal as Abdul, a cheerful performance that endears Abdul to us, fascinates us and makes us care. Abdul teaching his Empress bits from the Koran, writing in Arabic and explaining some aspects of Indian history (some of it disastrously wrong, to the detriment of both characters) reveals a young man widely read and highly intelligent. Yet he was a simple clerk at a Deli prison before being thrust by circumstance into the presence of the Queen of England and Empress of India.

The two of them make this a buddy movie that is not too far in mood from of The Intouchables (2011), where coloured servant becomes trusted companion to white principal, sharing laughs and tears along the way. In this case the class divide is even greater, and the Royal household is mightily miffed, unable to cope with the Queen's disregard for what can be now seen as their racist and classist attitudes. But that was before the 19th century became the 20th.

The two stars are given colourful support by British theatrical royalty, many of whom have hardly more than a scene or two - but they do it lovingly. The late Tim Piggott-Smith (to whom the film is dedicated) is ideal as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen's long suffering private secretary, with Eddie Izzard (unrecognisable under a bushy beard except for his bulging eyes) as the disapproving son, Bertie Prince of Wales. Olivia Williams is amusingly outraged as the Baroness Churchill and Michael Gambon is great as the grumbling Lord Salisbury.

In this Muslim-sensitive world, the film's depiction of Abdul's burqa-clad wife and mother in law complements the portrayal of Abdul as something of a Muslim scholar, a benign and comforting figure. There is even a gentle, inoffensive joke at the expense of the burqa ...

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 2
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 0

VICTORIA & ABDUL (PG)
(UK/US, 2017)

CAST: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Eddie Izzard, Simon Callow, Tim Piggott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Fanella Woolgar

PRODUCER: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward

DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears

SCRIPT: Lee Hall (book by Shrabani Basu)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Danny Cohen

EDITOR: Melanie Oliver

MUSIC: Thomas Newman

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Alan MacDonald

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 14, 2017






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