‘Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul’ il­lu­mi­nates only half the ti­tle

Penticton Herald - - COMMUNITY - By MARK KENNEDY

Stop us if this sounds fa­mil­iar: A tall, dark, bearded ser­vant of rough breed­ing comes from far away to sud­denly charm a grumpy, wid­owed Queen Vic­to­ria and thus up­end Bri­tain’s royal court at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

You were per­haps think­ing of the film “Mrs. Brown,” star­ring Judi Dench as the monarch and Bill Con­nolly as her Scot­tish un­der­ling, John Brown?

Well, hold on. A new movie has come along ex­actly 20 years later with an eerily sim­i­lar plot. Ei­ther Vic­to­ria was a crea­ture of habit in her at­tach­ments or her film­mak­ers are.

Sub­sti­tute Con­nolly with Ali Fazal and you get “Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul,” a film about the then most pow­er­ful wo­man on earth’s sec­ond un­usu­ally in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with a com­moner. In this case, a Mus­lim from In­dia in 1887.

Fas­ci­nat­ingly, Dench is back as the monarch, two decades af­ter she played Vic­to­ria and earned an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for it. It’s a priv­i­lege to watch her re­visit the crusty, we-are-not-amused queen, who is now in the twi­light of her life.

Dench is riv­et­ing, un­sen­ti­men­tal, im­pa­tient and glo­ri­ously brit­tle.

Some­times all she does is of­fer an ir­ri­tated sigh, speak­ing vol­umes. “Ev­ery­one I loved has died and I just go on and on,” she cries.

Dench is well sup­ported — the cast in­cludes the mar­velous Ed­die Iz­zard, the late Tim Pig­ott-Smith and the im­pe­ri­ous Michael Gam­bon — and the pomp and highly chore­ographed English cer­e­mo­ni­al­ism is cap­tured beau­ti­fully by di­rec­tor Stephen Frears, who knows a thing or two about roy­alty, hav­ing di­rected He­len Mir­ren in “The Queen.”

Much of this film is com­posed of stuffy royal ban­quets with hun­dreds of ser­vants scur­ry­ing about or soar­ing land­scapes with hun­dreds of ser­vants scur­ry­ing around.

There’s only one ma­jor prob­lem: The man at the cen­tre, Ab­dul Karim. He re­mains a blank can­vas, his mo­tives un­ex­plored, his in­te­rior or do­mes­tic life un­cap­tured.

He is called “the brown John Brown” and of­fers no ri­poste. The ti­tle of the film prom­ises us two peo­ple but we only get one.

Per­haps screen­writer Lee Hall (“War Horse,” “Billy Elliot”) meant to leave him a cypher, al­low­ing the English to try to de­fine him, but that’s be­ing gen­er­ous.

It’s hard to leave this film and not think that Spike Lee’s con­cept of “mag­i­cal Ne­groes” needs to be ex­panded for other peo­ple of colour.

The movie is based on jour­nal­ist Shra­bani Basu’s book “Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul: The True Story of the Queen’s Clos­est Confidant,” which told of Vic­to­ria’s close friend­ship with an In­dian ser­vant sent to the court with the sole task of of­fer­ing a gift of a cer­e­mo­nial coin.

The film­mak­ers have taken fac­tual lib­er­ties — the film is “based on real events... mostly,” which is very cute but mean­ing­less.

Fazal’s Karim smiles a lot, seems ab­so­lutely en­chanted by English weather and, at their sec­ond meet­ing, with­out provo­ca­tion, pros­trates him­self to kiss Vic­to­ria’s feet.

Why? He thought it would “cheer her up.”

What does Karim think of colo­nial­ism, of English state-spon­sored bru­tal­ity to­ward his peo­ple? We never know. “It is my hum­ble priv­i­lege to serve Her Majesty,” he says.

Later, he puts on his best For­rest Gump to tell the queen that “Life is like a car­pet.”

He means that all kinds of things are wo­ven into our fab­ric but he re­ally comes off as no more than a door­mat. (At least Con­nolly got to show some grit as the queen’s pre­vi­ously adored ser­vant — “Are you deaf as well as stupid?” he told the Prince of Wales in one scene.)

Mid-way through the film, Karim has moved per­ma­nently to Eng­land and be­come the queen’s spir­i­tual ad­viser, star­tling the court with his out­sized in­flu­ence. She will have none of it, sid­ing al­ways with her strong, silent, In­dian beef­cake.

That also sounds fa­mil­iar: Check out “The Green Mile” or “The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance,” which also fea­ture non-white char­ac­ters with mys­ti­cal pow­ers em­ployed en­tirely for the ben­e­fit of white leads.

The film­mak­ers knew in 2017 they couldn’t ig­nore the hor­rors of em­pire so it’s left to ac­tor Adeel Akhtar, who plays Karim’s more rad­i­cal­ized com­pan­ion, to carry the flag of na­tion­al­ism and anti-colo­nial­ism.

It’s a pity we never know what his friend, who has the queen un­der his in­flu­ence, thinks.

Bri­tish films seem to be look­ing back­ward th­ese days on their le­gacy in In­dia.

“Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul” comes out only a few months af­ter “Viceroy’s House,” which ex­plored how In­dia and Pak­istan were carved from the for­mer Bri­tish Em­pire in 1947.

In that case, Eng­land’s Lord Mount­bat­ten came off as hon­est, lov­ing and de­cent.

In “Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul,” the Em­press of In­dia comes off hon­est, lov­ing and de­cent.

In nei­ther film do In­di­ans tell their story or any story with­out a gauzy English fil­ter. That seems deaf as well as stupid.

“Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul,” a Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease, is rated PG-13 by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “some the­matic el­e­ments and lan­guage”

Run­ning time: 111 min­utes.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal are pic­tured in a scene from Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul, which opens tonight in Pen­tic­ton.

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