Wednesday 13 September 2017

Noblesse oblige: "Victoria & Abdul"

Back in the 1980s, the last time the country found itself so divided, Stephen Frears busied himself making films that in some way reflected those divisions. This run of groundbreakers and boundary-pushers bequeathed us the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid; even the director's late-decade ventures into period drama, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, played out like sly comments on the grasping, venal times. Since then, Frears has worked steadily in the US and UK, settling into a rhythm not unlike that of his contemporary Woody Allen - roughly one film a year, released into the awards corridor to better showcase his close work with actors - if not quite a pattern. The success of 2013's Philomena came to be followed by the failure of 2015's contemporary conte moral The Program, sending Frears back towards readily fundable/exportable costume fare: first last year's agreeable Florence Foster Jenkins, and now the jolly colonial episode Victoria & Abdul, about the connection said to have developed between the British monarch and the Indian clerk she employed as her personal footman during the Jubilee celebrations of 1887. The obvious conclusion would be that Frears, like many of his countrymen, has entered into nostalgic retreat, and started dealing in Downtonisms at the behest of an industry that has apparently pledged to be 90% bonnets by 2019.

Of course, for a certain cross-section of the new film's audience, the trajectory of its maker will matter far less than the sight of Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria once again - and playing her, yet again, as an essentially decent old cove who longs to be loosened up, a characterisation possibly grounded more in the desires of the target demographic than in any documented historical reality. When I say loosened up, I here mean literally so: as we join her Maj, a diet of stodgy banqueting fare has led to the Royal colon being somewhat overburdened - which seems as much a source of the Queen's irascibility as her post-Albert, post-John Brown solitude. Relief of a kind arrives in the form of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly prison-service employee shipped over from Agra to pass on a ceremonial coin as part of the Jubilee shindig. Monarch locks eyes with humble servant during the presentation, and vows to keep him on to provide a measure of companionship and spiritual guidance, adding mango and spice to her itinerary; soon afterwards, she's trilling Gilbert and Sullivan in public, developing her Urdu, and lecturing her paler courtiers about the fate of the colonies. Of course, Abdul is the one feeding her, and of course, this is unpaid work, but nobody on screen seems inclined to make too great a fuss. Customs have to be observed, and motions gone through, after all.

What Frears has shed in punkishness over the decades, he's gained in reassuring professionalism: Victoria & Abdul fair purrs, like the engine of a Rolls, with a sense budgets are being kept to, and marks hit. The films now have sweep enough to carry off even the Cromwells among us: V&A transports us to Balmoral and Florence, the costume and production design doing its utmost to persuade us everybody is actually spending time on royal turf. Among the character actors recruited to huff and puff their way along these corridors, there is entertaining ham from Eddie Izzard as a glowering Bertie, resentful at years of mollycoddling; from Paul Higgins as the hyperventilating royal surgeon; and from Simon Callow as a passing Puccini. Lee Hall's script occasionally angles towards contemporary concerns: conniptions break out among Victoria's entourage after it's discovered the language Abdul has been teaching her Maj isn't what they dub "Hindu", rather "Urdu - the Muslim version". Yet it's all terribly mild; you wouldn't know from watching the film that its country of origin is up in arms, which may be the point, and possibly the means of its triumph. Almost every scene serves to cement rather than challenge Victoria's sovereignty: any criticism of the elite is channelled through Abdul's travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and he's reduced to whiny-wheezy comic relief the minute he succumbs to a cold on contact with the Scottish climate. The implication is that those of us not fortunate to be born a Victoria should be more like the upstanding Abdul: fully aware of (and satisfied with) his place at the feet and mercy of his superiors.

I've spent Frears' last few projects quietly admiring his wiliness: his way of tickling us under the chin with one hand even as he lays down a broadly conservative narrative with the other, either via the interjection of scenes that can't fail to raise a smile (Florence Foster Jenkins' caterwauling, say), or by the simple attention paid to minor and supporting characters, an approach that usually pays off with a chuckle or two somewhere down the line. The apex of this process remains Philomena, nudging us smoothly from tragedy to triumph via the interplay between the irrepressible Dench and the lugubrious Coogan; here, however, everybody's headed towards an oddly rushed - if historically verifiable - conclusion that Frears, for once, doesn't really seem to know what to do with. (It's neither heartwarming, nor heartbreaking; it's a moderate shrug that mostly conveys "How the hell do we end this one post-Brexit?" and, eventually, "Will this do?") Victoria & Abdul almost - almost - won me over deep into its second half, but it ends in a muddle that seems regrettably representative of where we are at this moment in 2017: trying to square its underlying message of tolerance and unity with the chilly realisation that, for a damnably high percentage of its target audience, the happiest of all endings would be to send the foreigners who've served us right back where they came from.  

Victoria & Abdul opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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