Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship

Victoria & Abdul

In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance.  The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is  sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India.   Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).   

The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She  is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.

Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over.  Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself.  Bertie,  who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long. 

Abdul’s  swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves.  For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable.   To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and  to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of  “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante.  For  the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.

In the climax of Victoria and Abdul,  the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they  welcome Abdul into their midst.  She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech  which is  a masterpiece of acting. It serves  as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.

Queen Victoria  is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness.  In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off  the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).

And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi.  He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.

 Highly recommended.

Note:   Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909.  The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained  little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.

“Philomena”–The Story of a Mother’s Loss

Philomena

It has been almost eleven years after the groundbreaking and award-winning film “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002), a fictionalized drama based on three young Irish women who survive the dehumanizing abuse as inmates of a Magdalene Sisters Asylum, one of many that existed in Ireland and other parts of the Catholic world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Now, we have the remarkable and moving story of Philomena Lee, in the movie named after her, in which she searches for over fifty years for the little boy taken from her as a teenager.

“Philomena”, nominated for four major Academy Awards, has focused on an American journalist’s journey to help Philomena Lee recover from the agonizing, unhealed wound of losing her child while in a Magdalene laundry for pregnant and other “immoral” teenage girls. The asylums were named after the prostitute Mary Magdalene. The last laundry was closed in 1996.

The story focuses on a determined aging Irish woman who never forgot the son she was forced to give up, even after marriage and the birth of a daughter.  In a rather miraculous series of events, Philomena is able to identify the son, adopted by rich Americans,  whose name was changed to Michael Hess. There are some amazing coincidences and investigative reporting on the part of her advocate, the journalist Martin Sixsmith. Accompanying Philomena on her emotional, unexpected journey to find her son and learn of  his contribution to American politics, Sixsmith is unfailing in his support.

A powerfully acted film with the great Judi Dench as Philomena and the equally phenomenal Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, the actual horrors of the Magdalene laundries are not as vividly portrayed as in the earlier movie “The Magdalene Sisters”, but the personalization of the horror in one loving woman’s healing is unforgettable.  Not depressing by any means, the strong-willed Philomena seems to have learned that life requires forgiveness in order to heal.

 

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”–For the Elderly and Beautiful

Adapted from a novel, These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a finely nuanced film portraying seven British retirees:  a  widow (Judi Dench) whose late husband drove her into debt, a bigoted nanny/bookkeeper who is resigned to get a discounted hip replacement in India (Maggie Smith), retired judge (Tom Wilkinson) looking for his long lost lover, a sex fiend  bachelor Norman (Ronald Pickup),  a Blanche Dubois-type femme fatale (Celia Imrie), and a married couple who do not want to live in reduced circumstances in “senior living” (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton).

The hotel in Jaipur, India is owned and managed by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”) who longs to disguise the decrepit hotel’s faulty plumbing and broken phones with an optimism designed to soothe these seven Brits whose families have “outsourced” them. “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, it is not the end,” he reassures his guests who have high expectations for living their golden years in India.  The hotel will be the new home for “people from countries that don’t care about their old people”–for the elderly and beautiful.

Adjustments need to be made–not only to the exotic environment of India but also to the equally unexplored terrain of aging.  Instead of a maudlin discourse on loss and life’s passing, the film is increasingly appealing and buoyant.  The marvel revealed is the resilience of the human spirit, the openness to new experiences and the risk taken to dive into the unknown.   At times this sweet, often hilarious, movie hovers on being sentimental since everyone is trying to figure out what to do with the years remaining in life. To assume defeat from what every one of us as individuals wants suggests we’re not asking the right questions.  In the end “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a shout-out to chasing your dreams, regardless of age.

Younger people might not appreciate this film as much as someone closer to retirement but the hopeful message is it’s never too late to make things happen.  Wish fulfillment is in short supply and the target audience for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” will remember the sweetness and folly of these six Brits for a very long time.