All over the world on screens, you can see a very good film, starring a magnificent actress, Judi Dench.
Victoria and Abdul is about a piece of history and the capacity for human beings to forge friendships, even in the face of huge obstacles such as race, culture and class.
To start with Judi Dench, at this point watching her play Queen Victoria is something similar to watch Bette Davis playing an actress in All About Eve.
Victoria and Abdul is no commentary on a career, but an exploration of a state of mind and a stage of life, about what it’s like to be great, but also to be old, and to have to maintain a facade of composure, more for the sake of others, than for oneself. Imprinted on Dench/Victoria’s face is the resignation of knowing she can never be understood, that she’s going to have to take her secrets and feelings with her.
In the 1880, Abdul Karim was a clerk living in India and he was brought to London to present a medal to the queen. She liked him and kept him on, first as a servant, then as a teacher and member of the royal household..
The movie compresses fifteen years into what seems like about three. Director Stephen Frears switches between comedy and drama.. Many of the details are made up, there was no one taking notes during Victoria and Abdul’s private conversations, and recreating those conversations is further hampered by the almost complete burning of their correspondence, by the subsequent king, Edward VII.
Judi Dench’s portrait is that of a lonely woman, who doesn’t know a single person who remembers what she was like, when she could still be a human being. All her confidants are dead, and she can’t take any new favorites. They’re all jockeying for advantage. So she sees in Abdul (actor Ali Fazal), someone with whom she can bond.
Fazal is so handsome and radiates such a pureness of spirit that he compensates for the movie’s one missing piece: what was in it for Abdul? Was he working an angle? Perhaps he loved the queen as a mother figure, spontaneously and sincerely. But Victoria and Abdul doesn’t play a mix of motives, but rather presents Abdul as Victoria must have seen him.
In any case, the movie ultimately all comes down to Dench, and the film becomes a frame of her performance. It’s a great performance. Frears lingers on every line and seam on Dench’s face, but this is not exploitation, but a 76-year-old director and an 82-year-old actress in a common cause.
This is life, they’re saying. This is age. This is us, standing at the edge.
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