With the whole world still seemingly in the grip of clown-mania, it’s doubly difficult for a movie to make a real impact at the moment. With Victoria & Albert however, we may have something that is powerful enough to step out of the shadows that It has created in cinematic circles this month.
The sequel to 1997’s Mrs. Brown, and based on the book of the same name as well as real-life events, Judie Dench reprises her role as Queen Victoria, now in her dotage at the age of 81. This second story echoes the sentiments of its predecessor, in that a servant finds favour with the ruler of the largest empire that the world has ever seen. Although Ali Fazal‘s Abdul Karim is a completely different character to the irreverent Scotsman portrayed by Billy Connolly in Mrs. Brown, the similarities are striking.
Karim and his fellow servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are sent to Britain from India to present Victoria with a gift at a royal banquet. With this seemingly trifling task complete, the Queen is instantly taken with Karim, eventually making him her right-hand man. Unfortunately, the rest of the royal household, particularly her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who would later rule as Edward VII, do not share her enthusiasm. A bittersweet tale unfolds as this unconventional relationship struggles to find legitimacy.
As is often the case, Dench’s performance stands out a mile. That is not to say that the rest of the cast are lacking, as they all do an excellent job. It’s almost a prerequisite in modern cinema that any portrayal of a monarch, especially if it’s in a leading role, needs to show two sides to their persona. There has to be a contrast between the person we see as ruler and the one we see behind closed doors, yet not too stark that the performance loses its credibility. Victoria was famous for being stubborn, strong-willed, even scary, but also a somewhat tortured soul with a softer side, particularly at this point in her life where she has lost her dear husband, Prince Albert. Dench delivers all of this and more.
It’s a bit of a slow-burner to begin with, but it soon becomes apparent that this is far from being a typical Empirical story. The direction and cinematography enhance the lavish scenery and sets, whilst the script interjects humour into proceedings every now and again. Throughout its course, the film also manages to address issues that are all too familiar in the present day; racial prejudice, elitism and religious tension are all dealt with in an extremely thought-provoking manner.
Victoria & Abdul is both touching and tragic, whilst also being joyous and generous in spirit. A truly rare combination.