QUEEN DENCH

It is, of course, Dench’s film

  • Published 14.10.17
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Dench carries the project. While charting the queen’s emergence from gloom, she gets to grumble and groan, to slob through a six-course feast, to rage at her retinue, to laugh, to cry and even to dance a waltz and sing a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is perhaps one of the performances of her career, and will certainly place her in the best actress Oscar line-up next March

There’s an early scene in Victoria & Abdul that says it all. It’s 1887, it’s Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, and the ageing monarch (Judi Dench, at 82, playing 68, yet doing so, defiantly, as 82) is taking tea in the gardens of Windsor Castle. The queen is depressed, bored and apparently suffering from a bleak existential crisis (Why is she here? What’s the point? Why is she so alone?). Without warning, one of the servants, a handsome young Indian orderly called Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), drops to the ground and passionately kisses the queen’s stiff leather shoes.

Karim has arrived from Agra, northern India, to present a Jubilee medal to the queen and, from the moment he spied her at an evening banquet, has become intoxicated by her power. Down on the ground, his obvious excitement sparks through the queen’s shoe like erotic electricity, and her eyes pop open. “Mmmm,” she says, saucily, almost half to camera. “I suddenly feel a great deal better.”

At this point, as a moviegoer, you find yourself mildly startled, and thinking: “They didn’t just do that, did they? They haven’t just infused a prestige historical biopic from the director Stephen Frears [The Queen] and the writer Lee Hall [Billy Elliot] with a sassy dash of cross-cultural eroticism somewhere between Carry On Queenie, a Benny Hill special and 19th-century mummy porn [Fifty Shades of Mrs Brown?]” But they did.

And, indeed, the trademark motif of Victoria & Abdul is that of an almost violently tasteful film from the production company (Working Title) that gave you Anna Karenina and Les Miserables, but one that is nonetheless riddled with enough moments of subtle provocation and off-kilter ingenuity to make any claims for safe and comforting period entertainment entirely untenable.

The film is an adaptation of a non-fiction book by Shrabani Basu — based on personal diaries, notes and official documents — that traces the decade-long relationship between Victoria and Karim (he became her close confidant and munshi, or teacher). There are echoes here of the queen’s relationship with the Scottish ghillie John Brown (made into the 1997 movie Mrs Brown, also starring Dench as Victoria), yet this story carries an extra political charge. For it describes how a young Muslim man came to occupy a position of influence over a British sovereign at a time when the empire was at its most powerful (Victoria, for instance, repeatedly petitioned the viceroy’s office in Calcutta, at the behest of Karim, on behalf of India’s Muslim minority population).

It is, obviously, a timely subject, but Frears and Hall make no explicit attempt to hammer home contemporary resonance, or to tackle Islamophobia or Muslim panic. Instead they nurture quiet little scenes, such as the queen finding meaning and purpose in the Quran, that speak of the film’s fundamental humanism. “The point of a carpet is to bring all different kinds of threads together,” Karim explains, early on, in one of Hall’s more conspicuously metaphorical speeches. “It is to weave something that we all can stand on.”

Karim’s increasingly intimate relationship with Victoria and how that affects the royal household is the dramatic motor of the film. As Karim progresses from humble servant to valued munshi to indispensible and unimpeachable friend, the courtiers are covertly pushed from exasperation and despair towards sinister plans of revenge. They are played with amiable buffoonery by Olivia Williams (as Baroness Churchill), Tim Pigott-Smith (as Sir Henry Ponsonby) and Eddie Izzard (packing an impressive extra 26lb in blubber as the bloated Bertie, Prince of Wales).

They are the film’s villains, described by Victoria as “stupid aristocratic fools, toadying around, jockeying for position”. And their climactic moment arrives with a mutinous household revolt followed by a threat to declare the queen insane. The latter scene furnishes Dench with one of those barnstorming direct-to-camera speeches that are designed, if nothing else, for awards season compilations.

And it is, of course, Dench’s film. She carries the project. While charting the queen’s emergence from gloom, she gets to grumble and groan, to slob through a six-course feast (lots of soup on the chin), to rage at her retinue, to laugh, to cry and even to dance a waltz and sing a few bars of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is perhaps one of the performances of her career, and will certainly place her in the best actress Oscar line-up next March.

It’s not a perfect film, by any means. And Karim, sweetly played by Fazal, remains something of a cipher throughout (he lies, he’s a bad husband, he has gonorrhoea, but who cares). Yet as a mainstream historical drama about Anglo-Indian relations, it certainly has some spice.

Kevin Maher
(The Times London)

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