As we crawl out of the (largely disappointing) summer movie season, the first of the serious award-contenders hoves into view. Victoria and Abdul tells the untold story of a hushed-up relationship between an aged Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, "Philomina", "Spectre") and her Indian servant, Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal).
Kareem is shipped to England from Agra to deliver a ceremonial coin to the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee, together with a grumbling 'stand-in tall guy' Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, "The Big Sick", "Four Lions"). Kareem finds the Queen as sour, depressed and acidic as her post-Albert reputation would have you imagine. But something clicks between the two, and pretty soon the perked-up queen is learning Urdu and all about the Koran, much to the horror of her successor Teddy, the Prince of Wales (a splendid Eddie Izzard, "Oceans 13") and the rest of the royal household, who try desperate measures to derail the relationship.
This film is a complete delight. I went along without great expectations.... a worthy film I thought I should go and see to write a worthy review about. But I was entranced from beginning to end. It's probably best described as a comedy drama... always a difficult trick for a movie-maker to pull off. But here in the competent hands of director Stephen Frears ("Florence Foster Jenkins") the comedy is both very, VERY funny, with the drama also being extremely moving. And crucially the transition between the two never feels forced.
I've seen a few critical comments that the film's underlying topic - the subjugation of the Indian state and the queen's role in that, is a "serious topic" and not a suitable subject for a comedy like this. And of course, "the Empire" is a terrible legacy that the British people have around their necks in the same manner as Germans have their Nazi past and the American South have their history of slavery. But the film never really gets into these issues in any depth: Abdul's background, whilst sketchily drawn and feeling rather sanitised for the late 1800's, is one of a middle-class Indian with a decent colonial job: someone shown respect by his British managers. While the "uprising" of Muslims is mentioned - indeed it's a key part of the story - Victoria's lack of knowledge of such things, or indeed of all things to do with the country she is 'Empress' of, is made clear. The focus of the film is quite rightly on the understandable scandal (for the day) of the queen of England (and hence head of the Church of England) having a spiritual teacher (or "Munshi") who is neither white nor Christian. If there is a criticism to be made of the splendid script by Lee Hall ("War Horse") it is that the racial references - and there are a few - feel rather over-sanitised given the tensions that erupt as the story unfolds.
Above all, this is an acting tour de force for Dame Judi, reprising her role as the elderly queen from "Mrs Brown" which (shockingly!) is now 20 years old. I know its early in the season to be placing bets, before having seen any of the other major contenders, but Dench's "insanity" speech screams "Oscar reel" to me. Her performance is masterly from beginning to end.
Rather overshadowed by Dench is the relative newcomer to western cinema Ali Fazal (he had a role in the "Furious 7" film). But his performance is almost as impressive, bringing the warmth and compassion to the supporting role that is so sorely needed if the overall balance of the film is to be maintained.
The supporting cast is equally stellar with Olivia Williams ("An Education", "The Sixth Sense") acidic as Baroness Churchill; Simon Callow ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") as Puccini; Michael Gambon ("Harry Potter") as Lord Salisbury and Tim Pigott-Smith as Henry Ponsonby, head of the royal household. This was Pigott-Smith's final live-action performance before his untimely death at the age of only 70 in April of this year: and it's sad to say that he really doesn't look well in this film. Also of note is Fenella Woolgar as lady's maid Miss Phipps, comical as a the quivering wreck holding the shortest straw in having to face up to her ferocious mistress.
Another star of the show is the Scottish countryside, ravishingly photographed by Danny Cohen ("Florence Foster Jenkins", "Room") with this film probably doing more for the Scottish Tourist Board than any paid for advertising could ever do!
As the film comments it's "Based on a True Story... Mostly", and this tease of a caption both infuriates and intrigues in equal measure. I may feel obliged to delve into the original source material by Shrabani Basu to learn more.
Overall this is a true delight of a film, perfectly balanced, brilliantly acted: I would say this is a "must see" for any older viewers over the age of 50 in need of a cinema outing that doesn't disappoint. This is everything that (for me) "Viceroy's House" should have been but wasn't. Highly recommended.
(For the graphical version of this review, please visit www.bob-the- movie-man.com. Thanks.)