Current Flics: Victoria and Abdul

Laughter is good for the soul all the time, not just during difficult political times. Victoria and Abdul, starring the magnificent Dame Judi Dench, is about the improbable friendship between an aging Queen Victoria and a young Indian man, Abdul Karim. Abdul and Mohammed are ordered by the ruling British authorities to go to England from their home in India to present a gold coin to the Queen as part of her jubilee celebration. Of the two Abdul is tapped to make the presentation, because he is taller.

Abdul and Mohammed are dressed in ridiculous costumes, which fit the British sense of what an Indian subject should look like. They are carefully schooled in how to make the presentation, above all not to make eye contact with the aging, ill, and desperately lonely Queen. The impish Abdul sneaks a peek, and the friendship starts from there.

The real Queen Victoria died in 1901, after serving for more than 67 years. In the film she dies while Abdul is still in England, having been made a part of the royal family. Victoria’s actual son, the unscrupulous Bertie, is not happy — nor is any member of the Queen’s extensive entourage. They take action, threaten to have her declared insane if she will not cast Abdul out. Queen Victoria, despite her much diminished state, responds with all the force in her short, rotund body. Abdul stays.

The film is apparently not entirely historically accurate, although Queen Victoria did have an Abdul and their improbable friendship lasted for fifteen years . Don’t judge this film by an historical record, as you might judge the Burns and Novick documentary on VietNam. Judge the film as an acting masterclass about a friendship between an imperious but lonely old woman and an impertinent but kind and deeply human young man. Dench, as I said, has lost not one iota of her acting talent despite being 82 and suffering from macular degeneration, which limits her ability to read scripts. The other actors cross into caricature at times, but say something important about colonial rule. The visuals and dialogue are often hilarious — I laughed out loud numerous times, as did others in the theater.

Dench is a serious actress with an extensive body of work, including distinguished live stage performances, and her list of awards is long. She also does roles like M in the James Bond series, and has appeared a couple of times in lighter films with her age mate Maggie Smith — The Best Marigold Hotel comes to mind. I love every single thing Dench has done, and don’t want to miss any piece of her work that I can see. I highly recommend this film —  not because it will drag you into a complex moral quandary, but because it will make you laugh, and make you nod in admiration and awe for a gifted woman still at the peak of her craft.

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