By Jack Dignan
A lot of true stories simply aren’t true. Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Didn’t happen. In fact, that film is based on the same “true story” that Psycho is based on, and I don’t recall Leatherface ever dressing up in his mother’s clothing. Those films, as is the case for a number of films over the years, hold their story as being the closest to the truth as you could possibly get, but it’s false. So, if you’re going to admit to falsifying the true story, only lifting particular elements of what actually happened for the sake of preventing the audience falling asleep, own up to it. Tell them what you’re doing. They won’t hold it against you. And that’s what Victoria & Abdul does.
This is a true story. Kind of. It is, for the most part, accurate, but with certain historical inaccuracies, sacrificed in order to benefit this as a film rather than making it a documentary. And that’s fine. It’s more than fine. It leads to a narratively flawed, often tedious but delightful enough little movie that does just enough right, making it very difficult not to enjoy. We follow the story of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), decades into her rule over England. She’s lonely, fat and on her last days, and that’s when she meets an Indian clerk named Abdul (Ali Fazal). Together, the two of them strike up an unlikely, often frowned up friendship that causes uproar within the political parties.
There’s not much to Victoria & Abdul, making its near two-hour runtime often feel stretched out and about twenty minutes too long, but thanks to its charm and frequently likeability, there’s a real good time to be had. Younger audiences may not latch onto its story all that much, but for those interested in the time period, or for the more senior crowd, this is right up their alley. It’s full of heart, humour and earnest charm. Jokes can feel a little overbearing at times; often taking away from the seriousness of the subject matter, but when they work, the film is damn funny. Judi Dench kills it, now portraying Queen Victoria for the second time and doing it better than ever.
Unfortunately, for as good of a performance as she gives, the way her character’s written often makes her scenes tough to sit through. They start out slow and boring, perfectly encapsulating her dull lifestyle, but not in a humourous and entertaining way. It’s just uninteresting. She becomes a boring character for the first third of the movie. Then, everything changes once Ali Fazal’s Abdul takes on a more prominent role, and gets Victoria to start living again. She finds purpose and happiness. He’s the first real friend she’s had in years, and their offbeat chemistry bounces from the screen.
The scenes they share are some of the film’s best. It takes a little while for things to get into gear, even with its fast, jumpy pacing, but once sparks begin to fly (platonic ones, of course, although several moments do feel frighteningly full of sexual tension), the film gets back on track. Victoria & Abdul is a gorgeous, otherworldly triumph with some of the greatest costuming and set design of the year. It’s rich with accuracy, more so than the actual story being told, and allows for an immersive throwback that’s easy on the eyes.
The film’s biggest downfall, however, is its inability to stick with a tone. It leaps about from quirky comedy to politically charged period piece to family drama to sour, depressing tearjerker. Every scene jolts between seriousness and a lighthearted comedy. The ultimate conclusion, while quite the downer, does have a bitter sweet sentimentality to it, wrapping the whole thing together quite nicely, but the film seems to doubt whether or not that final tone is the right one. It ends about four times, simply to create a conclusion for each of its many tones. This isn’t an over plotted story. It just feels like it.
Oscar nominations are often unpredictable. On paper, Victoria & Abdul sounds like a surefire Oscar winner. They have Oscar nominees and winners all round, both in front of and behind the camera, but sadly, their talents are put to waste in a film that, while impressively made, doesn’t scream with awards consideration. We’re slowly moving into the heat of awards season. And yet I’m still waiting for the first solid contender to blow me away (sorry Dunkirk).
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