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Not quite extraordinary, but still an absorbing tale of an unlikely friendship
'Victoria and Abdul' appealed to me straight away, being someone who likes-loves a lot of biopics, considers Judi Dench a national treasure and who has liked several of director Stephen Frears's films. While it is not a perfect film, let alone quite an extraordinary one, 'Victoria and Abdul' generally did not disappoint and tells the tale of an unlikely friendship very absorbingly.
As indicated, there are a couple of things that don't quite come off successfully. There were instances to me where the knockabout comedy was a little too enthusiastically written and delivered, particularly in a few of the imperial members of the court and their attitudes (occasionally teetering on the near-patronising). Simon Callow has fun as Puccini, but the man is presented somewhat as a caricature that could have been toned down.
There are also instances of the dialogue being a touch too modern, Bertie does have moments of clichéd dialogue that takes one out of the setting somewhat and borders close on making too much of a pantomime villain. 'Victoria and Abdul' has been criticised for the politics, the portrayal of the title characters and the portrayal of colonialism being too generous, or "white-washed", as pathetic as this may seem that wasn't as big a problem to me, being not as knowledgeable in those areas, regarding the characters the performances were too good for that to be considered a problem to me.
However, 'Victoria and Abdul' has a lot going for it. It is a beautiful film visually, the cinematography has a warm glow and boasts hues that give off a nostalgic quality. The costumes and locations settings are vivid and sumptuous. Thomas Newman has shown many times that he can write hypnotic and understated scores that evoke rousing and emotive qualities, he brings those qualities fabulously here. Stephen Frears directs with a gentle touch and keeps things as lively and compelling as possible.
Frears and screenplay writer Lee Hall (although as said the script is not always perfect) also do a good job balancing comedy and drama and making the characters interesting (even if some are more developed than others, personally found the titular characters very vividly depicted while a couple like Puccini are underdeveloped). Most of the comedy is genuinely funny, wonderfully mischievous and slyly pointed, particularly in the first half where some of the lines make one laugh out loud. The comedy is balanced beautifully with a more serious, but not jarringly so, second half that soars in pathos and emotion that does tug at the heart strings. The ending is very touching.
Story-wise, this unlikely friendship and relatively unknown chapter in the relatively late stages of Victoria's life/reign is absorbing, going at a lively pace while maintaining a gentle and well balanced tone. The lack of depth is more than made up for in the sweet chemistry between Dench and Ali Fazal, the comedy and drama and that the film is uplifting and poignant in equal measure.
Judi Dench as expected is magnificent, achieving an achingly vulnerable and spirited portrayal which helps make Victoria easy to relate to and remarkably real, despite any misgivings people have of how she is written in context in the story. Ali Fazal matches her very well, he is very charming and loyal and gives the character an intensity and gentle charisma, don't agree about him being too servile, too eager or overly wilful though can understand that for him being a little too twinkly.
Michael Gambon and the late Tim Piggott Smith are very good too, and Callow has fun although Puccini doesn't quite work. Eddie Izzard has to work with the least flattering and one-dimensional depiction of Bertie Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) imaginable, but remarkably he fits well and gives everything to his performance, remarkably just about preventing the character from being too much of a pantomime villain despite how the role is written coming dangerously close (the dialogue doesn't always do him justice).
Overall, absorbing if not extraordinary. 7.5/10 Bethany Cox
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