Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. United Kingdom/USA, 2017. BBC Films, Cross Street Films, Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films. Screenplay by Lee Hall, based on the book by Shrabani Basu. Cinematography by Danny Cohen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Alan MacDonald. Costume Design by Consolata Boyle. Film Editing by Melanie Oliver. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
In 1997, Harvey Weinstein got wind of a film about Queen Victoria filmed for television by the BBC and, seeing its cinematic potential, took it away from the small screen and turned it into an Oscar nominated hit, making its star Judi Dench a late-life cinematic sensation. Twenty years later, with Weinstein’s public and professional downfall just barely in the rearview mirror, the monarch who enjoyed a more than sixty year reign is once again the subject of a film, this time made with the big screen in mind and with Dench in the lead role once again. Taking place some time after her friendship with her beloved John Brown, Victoria is charmed by another outsider, this time a lowly Indian clerk sent from the furthest reaches of the empire to present her with a coin as a token of affection from her subjects in the far east. Having become despondent with the daily routine of pomp and ceremony, her increasing age feeling no benefit from her duties, Victoria has a spring put back in her step by the mercurial Abdul (Ali Fazal), who gives her Urdu lessons and spins lovely tales about the homeland that she rules but will never see. Her increasing affection and admiration for Abdul, which eventually has her bringing his family to England and deciding to bestow titles upon him, causes nothing but strife in the household, with a group of tense and terrified men and women reaching the point of revolt when they can take the interference of this upstart charlatan no more. Stephen Frears has worked so beautifully with Dench before that it is shocking how very simple and dull this film is: the objections to Victoria’s relationship with Abdul are not surprising, but the fact that the supporting cast can only manage one tone of emotion over what is years of Abdul’s presence in the household is ridiculous. Surely there were at least some staff members who tolerated his presence without sticking up their noses at every sight of him, and the film could stand exploring the possibility that Abdul had some shady qualities even when he was most in the queen’s favour. The pointed commentary on British hypocrisy towards its own subjects (foreigners are usually in your face because you stole or at least interfered with their country, folks) is enough a part of the story without needing to present Abdul as a simple and flat symbol, the injustice he suffers would still track if you allowed some emphasis on the less savoury aspects of his character (he doesn’t seem to mind that his friend suffers from their years in England, and what of his STI that is never really resolved?) Lee Hall’s screenplay is a shallow experience that doesn’t feature nearly as much spontaneous delight as John Madden’s film, or anything near the richness of Frears’ previous collaborations with Dench; her Oscar-baiting scene, a lengthy close-up of her responding to accusations of mental incapacity, is as wonderful as this masterpiece of an actor always is, but it comes nowhere near her inspirational speech outside the Windmill theatre in Mrs. Henderson Presents, or basically the entirety of Philomena.