NEW YORK (CNS) — Judi Dench is no stranger to playing royalty, and she shines once again as the titular queen in “Victoria and Abdul” (Focus).
Beginning in 1887, director Stephen Frears’ historical drama, adapted from the book by Shrabani Basu, follows the unlikely adventures of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly clerk at the local prison in Agra, India. He’s a tall and handsome 24-year-old, and it’s these traits that cause him to be selected to present a mohur, a ceremonial gold coin, to Victoria during her golden jubilee.
Undertaking a four-month journey by sea together with grouchy Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), another randomly chosen native of the subcontinent, Abdul gets to England only to be trussed up in an artificial version of Indian servant clothing and instructed in the proper etiquette for the state occasion.
Feeling nervous and out of place, Abdul promptly violates the most important of the rules that have been laid down for him by catching the bored queen’s eye and flashing a quick smile, which she returns. The next day, she requests Abdul’s presence as her personal attendant.
Thus begins an unusual friendship. Young and naive about proper British restraint in the presence of the sovereign, Abdul engages Victoria in enthusiastic conversation, regaling her with descriptions of the Taj Mahal and the broader culture from which he springs. He progresses from servant to private secretary and finally becomes her teacher, instructing her in Urdu.
Abdul’s innocence and lack of pretension provide a breath of fresh air for Her Majesty, surrounded as she is by pompous politicians and stuffy ladies-in-waiting always trying to curry her favour. But the closer their relationship grows, the more antagonism the royal household — led by the queen’s eldest son and heir, Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — unleashes on the newcomer.
The platonic bond at the heart of the plot is sweet and endearing. But the film’s attitude toward colonialism seems overly simplified. When Victoria refers to herself as empress of India, for instance, Abdul just smiles and nods. Mohammed is more clear-eyed in his analysis, but his resentment is kept on the sidelines.
“Victoria and Abdul” celebrates its main characters’ loyal attachment as well as openness, tolerance and respect for those from different backgrounds. When we take the time to get to know people for who they really are, Lee Hall’s script suggests, we may be surprised to find that our shared humanity means we have more in common with them than we might, at first, suspect.
Taken together with the movie’s historical value, such ethical insights may lead at least some parents to consider “Victoria and Abdul” acceptable for older adolescents.
The film contains a couple of uses of profanity, at least one milder oath, about a half-dozen crude and a pair of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
NEW YORK (CNS) — Corruption lurking under the placid surface of life in the suburbs is hardly a new theme.
But the image of universal middle-class depravity presented in the failed black comedy “Suburbicon” (Paramount) is so lurid as to render the movie fundamentally unbelievable. While the filmmakers’ artistic intent is clear, moreover, this nihilistic outlook may make the picture offensive to many.
Set in the Levittown-like housing development of the title during the early 1950s, the grotesque story is partially told from the point of view of preteen Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe). Placing a child at the centre of such a tale proves the first of many questionable artistic and ethical choices involved in this project.
Early on, Nicky is awakened in the middle of the night by his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), and discovers that his family — including his wheelchair-bound mom, Rose (Julianne Moore), and Rose’s twin sister, Margaret (also Moore) — are the victims of a home invasion.
The duo of brutish intruders (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) who, for reasons unknown, have taken the clan captive then proceed to tie them up and administer chloroform to each — deliberately, and fatally, overdosing Rose.
In the wake of this unexplained tragedy, Gardner invites Margaret to move in with him and Nicky, ostensibly to provide Nicky with a female presence in his life. As soon becomes apparent, however, Gardner’s real motives in setting up this arrangement are far less respectable.
Nicky remains confused by what he discovers about Dad and Margaret’s behaviour, including his interruption of them in the middle of perverse sex. But their actions strike the police officer (Jack Conley) and insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) assigned to the case as unmistakably suspicious.
Awkwardly intertwined with the main plot is a cautionary tale about intolerance that sees the community’s first black couple, the Meyers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), and their young son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), besieged by angry white mobs intent on driving them out of the neighbourhood.
Along with Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba), steadfast, dignified Mrs. Meyers is the only significant adult character who seems to possess any moral values.
Director George Clooney — who co-wrote the script with brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and Grant Heslov — paints a perversely dark picture of human nature from which, in the case of Gardner at least, even the most basic positive instincts are absent. His film also displays an elitist disdain for the lives of ordinary people.
In these respects, “Suburbicon” can be contrasted with the Coens’ equally ebony-hued but softer-edged 1996 sendup “Fargo.” While both movies concern bumbling and easily unraveled criminality, the protagonist of the earlier film was more desperate than evil. And his downfall was brought about by an easy-to-laugh-at, yet in many ways admirable adversary.
As bleak as wintry “Fargo” may have been, the spiritual landscape of “Suburbicon” is an unrelieved — and therefore unrealistic — stretch of utter desolation, with two innocent children dangerously lost in its midst.
The film contains a skewed outlook, occasionally shocking violence with considerable gore, some gruesome images, brief aberrant sexual behaviour, a few uses of profanity as well as several rough and a handful of crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Copyright (c) 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops