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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Victoria & Abdul

Getting back to Oscar nominees I've missed, I turn to Victoria & Abdul, which was nominated for Best Makeup and Hair Design and Best Costumes. It is the story, mostly true, of how Queen Victoria befriended an Indian servant and set everyone around her into a tizzy.

Judi Dench stars as Victoria, just as she did 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown, and the story is very similar: a lonely Queen turns to a commoner as a confidant, and everyone gets into a snit. This time it's even worse because the confidant is "colored."

It's 1887, the year of her golden jubilee. India, part of the British Empire, is sending a two-man delegation to present her with a commemorative coin. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent because he's the tallest one available. Another man (Adeel Akhtar) is sent because the other tallest man fell off an elephant. Victoria is tired and can barely stay awake, but when Fazal's gaze meets hers she gets a little spark.

Soon she has made him her footman, and then her "munshi," a teacher. He teachers her Urdu and the Koran many other things about Indian and Muslim culture. She transforms one room of a palace into a chamber of Indian art. Her personal secretary, Sir Henry (Tim Pigott-Smith) and her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard) are aghast, and scheme to get rid of him. They almost succeed a few times, but she likes Abdul and wants him around.

Directed by Stephen Frears, Victoria & Abdul is a solid work that is engaging without being transcendent. Dench has played Victoria before and is very good, although she brinks a twinkle to characters that sometimes seems the same over and over again. I liked Akhtar, too, who hates England and the whole Empire, but is forced to stay because Fazal likes it there.

Remarkably this is a true story, although of course some things are fudged. Time passing is difficult to gauge--the film goes from 1887 to her death in 1901, although it doesn't seem that long in the film. Also, Victoria outlived Sir Henry, which is not shown here.

Victoria & Abdul is nothing to get excited about, but it does have lovely costumes and for those who like British period films it hits the target square.

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