Film review by Jason Day of Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench as an aged, infirm Queen Victoria and her real-life, close friendship with her Muslim teacher Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
Director: Stephen Frears. Pathe/Granada/Canal+/Future Films/BIM/Scott Rudin
Producers: Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward. Writer: Peter Morgan. Camera: Affonso Beato. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Sets: Alan MacDonald.
Helen Mirren, James Cromwell, Michael Sheen, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Sylvia Syms, Roger Allam, Mark Bazeley, Gray O’Brien.
Following the sudden death of Princess Diana, and the with the glare of the world upon her, Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) retreats with her family to grieve on her Balmoral estate in Scotland. To her consternation, this does not sit well with the public, media or her new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sheen) who recall her to London, despite this going against protocol and every fibre in her being.
Mirren curtseyed her way to her first Best Actress Oscar (and repeated this at so many other film awards around the world, including the BAFTA’s, that it’s a wonder she didn’t need to check in for knee replacement surgery) for what then seemed like a tricky task – humanising the genial but decidedly frosty titular royal.
The power behind this performance cannot be underestimated, particularly if one happens to be a member of ‘The Firm’ as Diana mockingly called the British royal family. Following this film’s release, there has been a not entirely coincidental (and huge) growth in popularity for the head of the House of Windsor since the film was released.
Diana’s death in 1996 rocked the British Royal Family like nothing else since the abdication of old playboy King Eddie 60 years previous and their popularity had been in the doldrums ever since. Mirren’s genius (and Frears and Morgan’s, but more of them later) is to strip away the public facade of duty, tradition and adherence to court protocol and reveal the human beneath. Queen Elizabeth becomes a touching, concerned, loving monarchal matriarch. At the same time, Mirren went from being a well-known but somewhat remote British Grande dame of the theatre to a hugely successful movie actress, also known for showing off her buxom figure in daring red bikinis, splashed across the tabloid press.
Morgan is a deft writer and ably transports you back to that time in British society when, with the ascension of our youngest every Prime Minister, buoyed on the landslide victory for ‘New Labour’, when we really did all believe that ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Well, funny how fate can deal you a different hand, but his factual-sounding script pushes further with some delicious comedy from Blair and his aggressive spin doctor Alastair Campbell (Bazeley) and Blair making a total balls up of his first audience with her Maj. It gives Frears, a dab hand with such performances, the chance to spin a little modern day fairy-tale of royal redemption.
Sheen had already played Blair before on TV (The Deal) and would do so again (The Special Relationship) so he probably had this impersonation-veering-on-parody in his blood, but it’s interesting to watch his Blair grow in stature as the Queen’s status diminishes.
McCrory makes his wife Cherie as toe-curlingly embarrassing and forthright as those unfortunate headlines and scandals during her husband’s tenure painted her as being. This might not be the real Cherie Blair, but it’s the best approximation.