‘BTommy’s Honour ased on real events … mostly” states the opening title of Stephen Frears’s new crowd-pleaser, but even if the events depicted in are entirely true, the problem is they’re not all that believable in the way they’re presented in this handsomely mounted odd-couple movie. Despite a formidable central performance from Judi Dench there’s something a bit off-key.
It seems that in 1887, as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and bearing in mind her role as Empress of India, it was decided that a “mohur”, or ceremonial medal, be presented to her by an Indian. And it seems that, more or less at random, the Indian chosen for this task was Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a clerk at Agra prison, selected mainly because he was tall and reasonably presentable. The officials responsible, like most of the Brits in the film, are depicted as twerps and buffoons and their choice of the second equerry to accompany Abdul turns out to be Mohamed Baksh (Adeel Akhtar), who is short and plump; we’re asked to believe he was a ring-in after some kind of accident involving an elephant sidelined his predecessor.
At any rate, the two men make the voyage to England and before long are being tutored in court etiquette by Sir Henry (Tim PigottSmith), who is in charge the royal household (“The key to good service is standing still and walking backwards,” he explains). Of course as the film’s title reveals, and as anyone who’s seen the film’s trailer will already know, a firm if unlikely friendship develops between the elderly monarch and the charming and outspoken Indian. Before long Abdul is an official member of the court and is teaching her majesty how to read and write Urdu. She calls him her “munshi”, or teacher, and he seems to have replaced the recently departed John Brown in Victoria’s affections. The various court officials are not a bit pleased about the situation.
Somehow the royal friendship survives a couple of startling revelations involving Abdul, one being that he’s a Muslim, not a Hindu as Victoria had supposed; and it’s at this point that the film begins to feel even more contrived as it none too subtly — though no doubt with the best intentions — mocks the horror on the faces of the courtiers when confronted with Muslims and burkas. Appalled too is Bertie, the prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who comes rushing back from his favourite watering hole, Monte Carlo, to find out what on earth’s going on in Windsor Castle. Izzard, like many of the supporting characters, tends to chew the scenery.
And this is one of the film’s problems. Frears has made many good movies over a long career ( My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen), so it’s a little surprising to see the way he allows the sup-
IT’S A LITTLE SURPRISING TO SEE THE WAY FREARS ALLOWS SUPPORTING CHARACTERS TO HAM IT UP
Victoria & Abdul (tbc) National release from Thursday Tommy’s Honour (M) In limited release
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria & Abdul; below, Jack Lowden and Peter Mullan in