Screenings: December 1-7
Show Times: Nightly at 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee at 1:30pm and Sunday Matinee at 2:30pm. No one will be admitted after the film has started.
Admission: Regular $7; Matinees $6; MVFS Members $5; Seniors over 60, Military and Students with ID $6; Wednesdays $5
Running Time: 111 min
Film Director: Stephen Frears
“Victoria and Abdul” is about a lot of interesting things. It’s about Judi Dench, who has never seemed young, now getting older. It’s about a piece of history being repressed and the reasons for its repression. And it’s about the strange and resilient capacity for human beings to forge friendships, even in the face of arbitrary but formidable obstacles such as race, culture and class.
To start with Dame Judi, at this point watching her play Queen Victoria is a little like watching Bette Davis play an actress in “All About Eve.” “Victoria and Abdul” is no commentary on a career, but an exploration of a state of mind and a stage of life, about what it’s like to be great, but also to be old and frail, and to have to maintain a facade of composure and fearlessness, more for the sake of others than for oneself. Imprinted on Dench/Victoria’s face is the resignation of knowing she can never really be understood, that she’s going to have to take her secrets and her feelings with her.
The story told in “Victoria and Abdul” is so far-fetched that it really helps to know that it is, in its broad outlines, true. In the 1880s, Abdul Karim was a clerk living in colonial India, who was brought to London to present a medal to the queen. For some reason, she liked him and kept him on, first as a servant, then as a teacher and member of the royal household. She traveled with him everywhere and granted him land and honors, which created lots of jealousy among the royal courtiers.
The movie compresses 15 years into what seems like two or three. Director Stephen Frears switches between comedy and drama, but the transitions are smooth enough. Many of the details are made up — there was no one taking notes during Victoria and Abdul’s private conversations, and re-creating those conversations is further hampered by the almost complete burning of their correspondence by the subsequent king, Edward VII. But based on what remains — such as Abdul’s diary, discovered just this decade — it does seem true that Victoria made a constant and strenuous effort to defend Abdul against a lot of race-based hostility underneath her own roof.
Dench’s portrait is that of a lonely woman, who doesn’t know a single person who remembers what she was like when she could still be a human being. All her confidants are dead, and she can’t take any new favorites from among the assortment at court, because she can’t trust them. They’re all jockeying for advantage. So she sees in Abdul (Ali Fazal), who is openhearted and not part of the palace culture, someone with whom she can bond.
Fazal is so handsome and radiates such a pureness of spirit that he compensates for the movie’s one missing piece: What was in it for Abdul? Was he working an angle? Perhaps he loved the queen as a mother figure, spontaneously and sincerely. Yet he’d have to have had the soul of a slave (or a saint) not to resent the condescending British officers occupying his country. In all likelihood, Abdul’s motives were a mix of things — genuine affection, with an element of calculation and a recognition of advantage.
But “Victoria and Abdul” doesn’t play a mix of motives, but rather presents Abdul as Victoria must have seen him. This has the disadvantage of rendering something complex as simple, but it intensifies the movie’s emotional impact. Keeping the motives simple, for example, reinforces (or, if you want to be cynical about it, manufactures) a sense of outrage each time this impossibly sweet man is condescended to by some strutting officer or functionary. In “Victoria and Abdul,” every English stuffed shirt talks in a loud, confident voice, sounding something like Field Marshal Montgomery addressing his troops during World War II.
In any case, the movie ultimately all comes down to Dench, and the film becomes a frame of her performance. It’s a great performance. It’s her equivalent of Emmanuelle Riva’s work in “Amour,” a dress rehearsal for the abyss. Frears lingers on every line and seam on Dench’s face, but this is not exploitation, but a 76-year-old director and an 82-year-old actress in a common cause. This is life, they’re saying. This is age. This is us, standing at the edge. You could be empress of India, or one of the greatest actresses in the English language. It still comes down to this, and we’re looking at it. And you’re looking with us. (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle). Rated PG-13