ALL that I survey is mine: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her new best friend. Photograph courtesy BBC.com
SHE WAS SO many things. The portraits of her attest to her physical fierceness. An unbeautiful woman, Queen Victoria was pivotal to a stylistic era that was as much about decorum as it was about modesty. Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is a magnificently crafted work about her friendship with a young Muslim man in the years leading up to her death. Unequivocally, it is everything that an historical drama of this nature should be. And topped with Judi Dench’s immaculate portrayal of Victoria herself, the work is at once deeply evolved with impeccable attention to detail, as it is funny and tragic, historically viable and educational.
Sparing no no punches in reflecting on the queen of the British empire and by default the empress of India as a woman who bears the brunt of her station with complexity and unease, the work is replete with a great sense of textural authority. Queen Victoria is not politically savvy but is subject to the ceremonies and protocol of her context with a mix of boredom and physical discomfort. The work considers her, above all, as a woman, a mother of nine, who was widowed more than 30 years ago, one struggling with obesity and gynaecological issues who is forced by dint of birth to engage in a set of boring imperatives which are about keeping up appearances to the nth degree.
Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) on the reputation of a beautiful carpet, with the promise of a mango that is a little like an orange and a bit like a peach, and magic knocks audaciously on the door of this dour old woman. It’s the kind of magic she doesn’t want to lose: it makes her laugh. It enables her to rediscover her humanity in a world where everyone adulates her, but no one loves her.
It’s a beautiful if sometimes insanely farcical tale that looks at the foreignness of culture through fresh eyes. We see the barbarism of British cuisine through the perceptions of Abdul’s countryman Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and we see the sheer wonder of Abdul’s life as a prison administrator, the poetry he is heir to and the traditions that are central to his existence, through Victoria’s eyes. We’re also confronted with the complex and grim monolith of colonial mentality that runs as a backdrop to the tale.
With a mad little vignette which sees a bewigged Simon Callow in the role of Puccini, so much detail is central to the film’s focus. Eddie Izzard deliciously plays the irascible 57-year-old ‘Bertie’, Victoria’s eldest son who was crowned King Edward VII after her demise in 1901.
The cinematography, exploiting the utter symmetry of the Victorian lifestyle, to say nothing of the dizzying sense of detail which touches everything from British culinary ritual to the Taj Mahal itself is completely breathtaking, and the music, blending bagpipes with sitars, is as diverse and rich. This is the kind of film that will have you laughing and weeping and returning home to learn more about royal ascendancy and histories.
Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears and performed by Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder, Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey, John Stahl, Tim McMullan, Jonathan Harden, John Rowe, Benjamin Haigh, Sandy Grierson, Alaistair Pether, Sally Jokhan, Charlie Stewart, Willie Cochrane, Jonathan Mayer, Mitel Purohit, Sam Kenyon, Samuel Stefan and a supporting cast. It is produced by Tim Bevan and written by Lee Hall based on the book by Shrabani Basu. It was designed by Thomas Newman (music), Danny Cohen (cinematography), Consolata Boyle (costumes) and Alan MacDonald (production). Release date in South Africa: September 29 2017.
Garrett Wareing is Stet Tate, leading the National Boychoir, in the eponymous film. Photograph by Myles Aronowitz
It’s odd to think that a director could get some parts of a film so right, but enable an ending for a film that so profoundly negates all its explored values in one foul swoop. While François Girard’s Boychoir probes the preciously transient phenomenon of the soprano boys’ choir, an institution virtually as old as European church music itself, he successfully ramps up the crassly sentimental and harshly formulaic construction, filtering it through with a thick and morally troubling vein of money that even its sterling adult cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard and Kathy Bates cannot save.
The story of a pre-pubescent boy afflicted by the vagaries of a single parent with her own problems, but one equipped with a talent that can take him out of the murk of it all, Boychoir is predictable, even if it has an insultingly ostensible fairytale ending. But it is the music that will generally make your heart sing, and is the central draw-card of this work.
The film begs comparison with the 2000 British dance film Billy Elliot directed by Stephen Daldry, which takes apart how the fragile thread of talent can grow into real life if nurtured and plucked and whittled appropriately. Unlike the latter, which opens up issues ranging from sexual awareness to economic balance, Boychoir remains monolithic in its storytelling. This is a pity. Clearly armed with the kind of seed money that gives it access to beautiful settings, the use of Karl Jenkins’s work and other fine elements, the story itself plods, which severely challenges the overall result.
But further to that, there’s the lack of a master’s directorial touch. Crowd scenes are always an interesting opportunity for the construction of texture; films such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose or Peter Mullan’s (2002) The Magdalene Sisters as well as Aisling Walsh’s (2003) Song for a Raggy Boy – to say nothing of Miloš Forman’s (1975) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all present a coagulation of humanity in a context and the bringing together unusual looking people as well as the uniformly pretty ones, lends the comments the film offers nuance, intelligent and crepuscular insights and sheer brilliance. This doesn’t happen in Boychoir. While Garrett Wareing stands out with his sultry pout and long fringe, in his role as the central character, Stet, the rest blend into blandness.
It’s a strange turning around of values: constructed in the contemporary world filled as it is with the immediate internet and social-media access to everything, something of the quest for perfection, of the time taken to craft something as perfectly as possible is lost, and the film, while articulating some beautiful caveats about the preciousness of time, becomes a hum-drum affair.
Boychoir (2014) is directed by François Girard and features music direction by Brian Byrne and cinematography by David Franco. Its cast includes Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard, Garrett Wareing and Joe West, amongst others.