Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

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Mr. Turner


Timothy Spall is nothing if not Dickensian.

Timothy Spall is nothing if not Dickensian.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Niall Buggy, Fred Pearson, Tom Edden, Jamie Thomas King, Mark Stanley, Nicholas Jones, Clive Francis, Robert Portal, Simon Chandler, Edward de Souza, Karina Fernandez. Directed by Mike Leigh

J.M.W. Turner was a man of his times but he was also ahead of his time. In the prime of his career, he was one of the most respected and successful artists in the history of Great Britain but as he began to change his style he fell out of favor although ironically it is his later work which presaged the impressionist movement and is among the very best of his output.

Turner (Spall) had a certain amount of fame and had a love-hate relationship with his celebrity. He’d often leave his home base in London to sketch and dwell in places like France and the Netherlands, or in Margate where he grew up or on the country estates of wealthy patrons. At home he lives with his father (Jesson) who buys his paints, constructs his frames and mixes his paints for him. Turner’s hard work ethic definitely comes from dear old dad who for his part is tinkled pink that his son has made something of himself. There’s also the housemaid Sarah Danby (Atkinson) who clearly has feelings for the painter which he studiously ignores, although from time to time the two rut without much affection, at least on Turner’s part.

There’s also a former paramour (Sheen), a relationship that has yielded two daughters that Turner also studiously ignores despite the nagging of their mother. She harangues him about his thoughtlessness and lack of support; he tolerates it for the most part for a few moments before turning his back and returning to work. Mortifying behavior back in the early 19th century.

On a visit to Margate he encounters Sophia Booth (Bailey) who runs a rooming house on the waterfront with her retired seaman husband (Johnson). Turner takes a shine to the location as well as to Mrs. Booth. When her husband passes away, she and Turner become lovers although at first she doesn’t know him by his actual name; he uses one of his middle names, Mallord, when dealing with the Booths as he doesn’t want any sort of special treatment which he finds uncomfortable.

Time passes and Turner’s style begins to change. When his father passes away in 1829, Turner’s world crashes in on him, although in true British bulldog fashion he doesn’t show much outwardly. However, he turns even further into his work, only now doing the dreary parts himself. He finds himself weeping when he sketches a young prostitute. He finds his style changing to the point where some question whether his eyesight is failing him and yet his work now illuminates as well as illustrates. Paintings as beautiful as any ever produced by anyone begin to emerge.

Turner is largely unknown outside of Britain, certainly not to the American general public. I must admit that I was ignorant of his work, not being particularly an art aficionado although my sister is far more knowledgeable of art history in general than I am. I was quite taken by the work I saw onscreen and while I’m not sure whether these are reproductions or the actual works of Mr. Turner I can say with certainty that few artists loved sunlight as much as he judging from the way he displays it on canvas. Mike Leigh channels Terrence Malick by creating visual landscapes that use the sun in much the same way Turner himself did, creating almost ghostly milieus in which to display his actors. Some of the shots are breathtaking,

Spall, a veteran British character actor, has been hailed for this performance which many thought might net him an Oscar nomination (but didn’t). I have to say I have mixed feelings about it; Spall grunts, snorts, and wheezes like an asthmatic javelina. At times his mumbled dialogue is incomprehensible and I wished there had been sub-titles. Still, there’s a bulldogged quality to the performance and while I’m not familiar with what the real Turner was reputedly like (from what I understand he was not as nice as he is portrayed here) I can imagine the painter speaking his mind as shown here and devil take the hindmost if you disagree, although he is shown with a group of fellow painters having to endure the brainless cogitations of a dimwitted scion of a titled and wealthy family. Turner holds his tongue although you suspect that he’d very much like to loose it.

One feels the weight of the era on the film; Leigh does a very good job of capturing Imperial England just as Queen Victoria is ascending the throne from the costumes to the architecture to the technology and especially in the attitudes of those who are well-to-do. What Leigh doesn’t do well is tell a straightforward story. Often times you are left wondering what the purpose was for a particular scene as it seems to come up without reason or meaning. Da Queen found this very disquieting and as a result liked the movie a lot less than I did, although I have to admit I like it a lot more upon further reflection than I did exiting the theater. Sometimes movies will do that to you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous imagery. What feels like an authentic capture of the period. Spall is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed and sacrifices story for scenery. Could have used subtitles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some somewhat brutal sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The replica of the early railroad train that Turner painted was loaned to the production from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry for a single day, so the filmmakers had only one day to get the shot right.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seraphine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Seventh Son

The Pirates! Band of Misfits


The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirate Captain is ready to get you shivered, timber-wise.

(2012) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Al Roker, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jensen. Directed by Peter Lord

 

Pirates tend to be a churlish, loutish lot with bad tempers and bad teeth. Hey, you would be too if you spent most of your time on disease-ridden ships the size of a city bus or smaller with a bunch of evil-smelling, wretched men who are as like to cut your throat as they are to have your back – that is if they aren’t stabbing you in it. Pirates are notoriously unreliable (just ask Cap’n Jack Sparrow).

The Pirate Captain (Grant) is not quite such a bad guy but he’s all pirate. How do you know? He’s got the fattest parrot (okay, just big boned) on the high seas, a shiny cutlass and a luxuriant beard. He’s also got gleaming white teeth, a British accent, a love for shiny booty (no wisecracks) and an even greater love for ham.

What he really longs for is the recognition that comes from the Pirate of the Year award. He has thrown his bullet-holed hat in the ring for it year after year and come up short, usually losing to Black Bellamy (Piven), who knows how to make an entrance. He also has to compete with such fine black-hearted seadogs as Cutlass Liz (Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Henry). Still, with the encouragement of his right arm, the Pirate with a Scarf (Freeman) – note that the pirates on the Pirate Captain’s ship don’t get names – he thinks he has more than a fighting chance until he compares his measly pile of booty next to the mountains of shiny trinkets the others bring in.

Determined to win the prize at last, the Captain takes his crew back out for some intense pirating but with a spectacular lack of success the Pirate Captain begins to lose hope. Urged on by his number two, the Captain makes one final attempt at piracy – on what turns out to be the HMS Beagle, returning from the Galapagos with its passenger Charles Darwin (Tennant) who immediately recognizes the Captain’s parrot Polly for what she really is.

Faced with a new way to acquire the booty he needs the Pirate Captain must sail into the most dangerous waters of all – London, where Queen Victoria (Staunton) with her blind, unreasoning hatred of all things pirate, awaits. It will take all of the Captain’s skill to navigate these perilous seas and come back with the award that he so desperately wants.

Aardman studios, the madmen behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts (some of the funniest animated shorts of the past twenty years) and such features as Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas have returned to the stop motion Claymation animation style they’ve championed for years. There is a certain charm to that particular style, with the jerky movements and Aardman’s trademark toothy smiles that are more square than anything else.

Aardman movies have a distinctly British sense of humor that shares the same roots as Monty Python and the Goons, not to mention more recent varieties such as Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. There is a quirkiness that is utterly endearing and if there are any references that only Brits would get, they’ve been excised from the American version (oddly, a couple of voice actors were replaced with Americans but the vast majority are the same).

If you didn’t know that was Hugh Grant’s voice you probably wouldn’t believe it. Gone are the trademark stammer (except in one instance) and for the most part Grant affects a deeper, more resonant voice for the Pirate Captain. Staunton does her best to make Queen Victoria sound like an annoyed man but wounds up sounding a bit like Helena Bonham Carter as Belliatrix from the Harry Potter movies. Perhaps that’s intentional.

There are some transitional animations that show the pirate ship on an animated map where they are batted around by a codgerish Neptune and blown off-course by playful cherubs. They also release red discs in the water which show up on the map, in an amusing turn (it looks funnier than it sounds). It’s little details like this that make the film stand out.

And while the silent monkey butler (with flash cards for dialogue) might come off as a bit like pandering to the younger set, the monkey – better known as Mr. Bobo, he’s still no more objectionable than the slugs in Flushed Away who were to my mind some of the best parts of that film. I would have, in fact, liked to have seen more of him.

Gideon Defoe wrote the script based on his own books The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling. The upside of this is that he knows his characters best and adapts them to the screen nicely. If there’s a downside it’s that he must have found it hard to edit himself – the movie is a little bit scattershot and seems to be going in several different directions at once. As a result, the story feels a bit rushed and non-organic at times as it gets pinballed much like the ship does on the map.

However the movie is going to appeal to adults very nicely; surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have captured the imagination of kids at least here in the States which is kind of odd – pirates usually are a big draw for them. I don’t know if it’s just that Claymation is an acquired taste in this age of CGI, but it’s kind of sad that this isn’t pulling numbers that are consistent with CGI features. Hopefully it will nab itself an Oscar nomination come next year; it’ll have some competition with Brave but quite frankly it compares favorably with the rest of the animated films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky humor we’ve come to expect from Aardman. Plenty of clever recurring jokes (the monkey butler, the animated map).

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit all over the map.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence here (they’re pirates after all), a couple of naughty words and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film is animated with stop motion, but computers were used for some of the backgrounds, particularly sea and sky.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yellowbeard

CHARLES DARWIN LOVERS: Although the character is pictured as a young man, thanks to some convenient foam there is a shot of him resembling his more iconic old man visage.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Where Do We Go Now?

The Young Victoria


The Young Victoria

We are QUITE amused!!!

(2009) Biographical Drama (Apparition) Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann, Mark Strong, Julian Glover. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Most Americans have a picture in their head about Queen Victoria of England (if they even know who she is at all) of a dour old matronly sort dressed entirely in black with a perpetually sour expression, exclaiming “We are not amused!” in a posh accent. The woman who would be the longest-reigning queen in English history was obviously much more than that; she was also, at one time, a young woman.

As the movie begins, King William (Broadbent) nears the end of his reign. He is childless, so the daughter of his late brother, the Duke of Kent is his heir. Victoria (Blunt) lives in isolation with her mother (Richardson) and her mom’s lover, Sir John Conroy (Strong). Both of them very much want a regency with Sir John taking control of the throne, but Victoria is having none of it. In a show of the backbone that would define her reign, she refuses to sign papers handing over her authority and rights to her mother. It will not be the last time she will be underestimated.

Sir John isn’t the only one with designs on the crown. King Leopold of Belgium (Kretschmann) is eager to marry off his son, Prince Albert (Friend) to the young girl, so he coaches his son on Victoria’s likes and dislikes. She finds him out and when she confronts him with it, he owns up. This impresses her.

Good thing too, because she needs all the friends she can get. The Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Bettany) appears on the surface to be Victoria’s ally but he’s been playing the political game for so long that he can’t be trusted. Everybody at court wants some measure of power, and it is up to her to sort through it. It isn’t always easy, but with Albert at her side, she has an ally and confidant that she can at last truly count on.

This is an impressive-looking film much of it filmed at the actual locations the events took place at (with the notable exception of Buckingham Palace). The costumes are sumptuous (the film won an Oscar for it) and the movie appears to be meticulously researched. As such, it’s candy for the eyes.

It’s also candy for the soul as Blunt gives a terrific performance as the young queen. Ever since her acclaimed work in The Devil Wears Prada Blunt has been looking for that one role that can show she can carry a film on her back, and this more than does the trick – she is every inch the Queen and yet just as vulnerable as the rest of us. While she didn’t get a nomination, this was certainly Oscar-worthy work.

The movie lets us down in that it drags quite a bit through all the turns and twists of court politics. Sometimes it gets hard to tell one lord from the other duke and what their agenda is, but consider this is essentially a condensed version of what really happened. Imagine trying to keep track of it if you were Victoria herself.

The love story between Victoria and Albert are at the heart of the movie and it is important that the relationship seem realistic. Fortunately, the chemistry between Blunt and Friend is genuine, and the relationship works; it’s easy to see why Victoria adored him so, and why she mourned his untimely death for her entire life.

While this isn’t perfect, it is nonetheless quite satisfactory both as history lesson and as entertainment. While there are some factual fudging, there isn’t nearly as much as is usual for a Hollywood production and that’s reason to give thanks right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Very informative on the life of one of the most influential figures of the English monarchy. Blunt does a tremendous job in the title role, and the production is authentic-looking and lush.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is slow-moving at times and keeping some of the palace intrigue straight is a bit tiring.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some semi-chaste sexuality and a few bad words. While this will bore most of the little ones, it is certainly fit for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting is played by Princess Beatrice of York, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Victoria. Her mother, Sarah Ferguson, is one of the film’s producers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on “The Real Queen Victoria” featuring excerpts from her diary as well as the actors giving their perceptions – occasionally inaccurate ones – on Her Majesty. There is also a featurette on the Oscar-winning work of Costume Designer Sandy Powell.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.4M on a production budget of $35M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Post Grad