Victoria and Abdul movie review

For inSing

VICTORIA AND ABDUL 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Judi Dench, Ali Faizal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 9 November 2017
Rating : PG

Victoria-and-Abdul-poster20 years ago, Dame Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That film was about the controversial relationship between Victoria and her servant John Brown, and now, Dench returns to the role in a film about another controversial relationship between Victoria and a servant, but one of a different stripe.

It is 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Faizal) and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel from India to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin known as a mohur. Abdul catches Victoria’s attention, and she hires him as an attendant. Abdul begins to teach Victoria Urdu, and becomes Victoria’s ‘munshi’, or teacher. Victoria’s affinity for Abdul, an Indian Muslim, earns the ire of the royal household and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, develops a hatred for and jealousy of Abdul. As the royal household plots to have Abdul removed, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul transcends that of a Queen and her servant. The former prison clerk finds himself becoming a confidant to Victoria, the Empress of India, in her waning years.

Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears, who has helmed awards season prestige films including The QueenPhilomena and Florence Foster JenkinsBilly Elliot writer Lee Hall adapted the screenplay from Shrabani Basu’s book, also titled Victoria and Abdul. The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek declaration that it is “based on a true story…mostly”. The film endeavours to be funny and heart-warming, and it often is, but many have taken issue with its depiction of historical events, which have been termed revisionist.

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The film wants to be a character piece that is anchored by the unlikely bond shared between the Queen and a servant, but it is impossible to detach the story from the surrounding political and historical context. Victoria is made out to be progressive and tolerant, with the royal household and staff treating Abdul with utmost prejudice. The film seems to exaggerate and simplify events for the sake of coherence, as historical films often do, and it is unlikely that the real Victoria was an activist who denounced Islamophobia. The film also sanitizes the atrocities committed by the British Raj during the Empire’s rule of India, a painful period in history which has left scars that are still evident today.

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However, these flaws in the film’s approach are significantly papered over by Dench’s remarkable performance. She plays Victoria as a lonely, curmudgeonly elderly woman, who has never quite recovered from the loss of her husband Albert. There’s tender vulnerability in the portrayal, which is tempered with formidable power. Even if this particular portrayal of Victoria might not be the most historically accurate, Dench is consistently riveting. As if there were ever any doubt about it, she once again proves to be a national treasure of the highest order.

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The dashing Faizal is immensely likeable as Abdul, playing the part with a genuine warmth and having a certain glow about him. Unfortunately, Abdul feels under-written, and the film takes on undertones of Orientalism by depicting Abdul as overly servile, sagely, gentle and enlightened. It seems the real Abdul was more aggressively ambitious than the benign film version. That said, the chemistry between Dench and Faizal does work, and both actors play off each other well.

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The supporting characters are largely one-note caricatures, with the various members of the royal household tut-tutting about Osbourne House. Izzard’s Bertie is drawn as an especially despicable villain who’s easy to hate, and while Izzard bites into the role with relish, the character is difficult to buy as an actual person. Akhtar is funny as Buksh, who is constantly playing second fiddle to the taller, more handsome Abdul. He also gets an excellent dramatic scene.

Victoria and Abdul boasts pedigree behind the camera beyond the director and writer – costume designer Consolata Boyle’s re-creations of Victorian fashions are lavish and eye-catching, while Thomas Newman’s score incorporates Indian instruments like the sitar, tabla and santur hammered dulcimer into his usual new age orchestral style. Cinematographer Danny Cohen presents the English and Indian locations in all their grandeur, with Victoria’s Glassalt Shiel retreat in Scotland looking especially gorgeous.

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The film starts out as a comedy and is often amusing, but as it journeys into more dramatic territory, one might get distracted attempting to parse the implications of the film and the liberties it takes with historical events in service of emotional beats. It’s a good thing then that Victoria and Abdul has Dench’s peerless skill as an actress to count on.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Florence Foster Jenkins

For F*** Magazine

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Nina Ariadna
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 51 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG

florence-foster-jenkins-poster“Follow your dreams, pursue your passion” – we’ve all heard it before, and while it sounds nice, sometimes it might not be the most practical advice. What if you’re passionate about something you’re demonstrably terrible at?

Such was the case with Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a wealthy New York socialite with dreams of singing opera at Carnegie Hall. Florence’s husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) arranges private concerts to which only vetted audience members are admitted, so as to shield Florence from any possible ridicule she might incur. St. Clair hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) to be Florence’s accompanist, and while Cosmé is taken aback by Florence’s complete ineptitude, he accepts the job. When Florence gives her friends a recording of her singing as a gift, it’s not long before she becomes a sensation, with listeners across the country tickled by her tone-deaf performances. While he seems every bit the loving, supportive husband, St. Clair has secrets of his own, secrets in danger of being discovered by Florence.

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There is a whole subculture dedicated to the ironic appreciation of films that are “so bad they’re good” – movies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Troll 2. Florence’s appeal as an amateur soprano was very much in the same vein. Multiple plays about Florence have been written and performed, with the 2015 French comedy-drama Marguerite drawing inspiration from her story. This material is right up director Stephen Frears’ alley. Having directed The Queen, Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frears is a dab hand at helming both biopics and comedy-dramas. As expected, Florence Foster Jenkins is a light-hearted, silly film. There is an undercurrent of sorrow, but the film comes off more as a celebration of Florence’s own self-delusion and the gargantuan efforts taken to enable her than anything else.

The 1940s New York high society setting is sumptuously dazzling, and Florence’s penchant for over-the-top costumes means that her outfits are never dull to look at. The film has many laughs at Florence’s expense, but also endeavours to make her endearing. There’s no malice behind what she does, and she is kind to those around her. However, it is frustrating that someone so unskilled at her chosen art form was given the platform to showcase her ‘talents’ just because she was wealthy and well-connected. Florence is a sympathetic figure in no small part because of her chronic illness, but as a critic, this reviewer can’t stand 100% behind the reinforcement of an artist’s self-delusion in lieu of self-improvement.

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Most of Streep’s recent high-profile roles have had a degree of silliness to them, and this is obviously no exception. She is having plenty of fun rocking those ridiculous costumes and yelping as if she were a Chihuahua who has stubbed its toe, but perhaps this wanton goofiness isn’t the best use of her abilities. To draw a comparison to previous leading lady in a Frears film, Helen Mirren seems to have a healthy mix of lighter fare and serious dramatic roles in her recent résumé. Even then, Streep remains a commanding presence and her performance is supremely entertaining, while also heart-rending when required. It’s pretty hard to sing badly on purpose and not damage one’s vocal cords, so Streep deserves credit in mastering that particular skill.

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Here, we have Hugh Grant playing a typical Hugh Grant role – the charming, ever so slightly awkward English gentleman. A subplot revolving around St. Clair and Rebecca Ferguson’s character Kathleen brings many of St. Clair’s foibles to the fore, so there’s more to him than just “supportive spouse”. Helberg steals the show on multiple occasions as the beleaguered, long-suffering accompanist who is bewildered that no one in her circle is objecting to Florence’s singing. Half of this movie comprises priceless reaction shots: shock, incredulousness, uncontrollable laughter. Helberg’s reactions, particularly when Cosmé first hears Florence sing and is absolutely mortified, further prove that the Big Bang Theory star has considerable comedic chops. Helberg did the piano-playing for real too.

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While Florence Foster Jenkins plays it broad for the most part, there are scenes that pack considerable emotional impact. This is a film that’s put together by people who know what they’re doing, with a veteran director leading the charge. However, Florence Foster Jenkins shies away from challenging the idea that behaviour like this should be challenged. Towards the film’s conclusion, St. Clair scrambles to conceal a negative review of Florence’s performance from her, for fear that it would be too much to handle. If it is your nature to have that thin a skin, perhaps the performing arts just aren’t for you.

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Summary: It’s entertaining and funny, but Florence Foster Jenkins passes up the chance to examine the implications of blindly enabling someone who’s bad at something instead of helping them actually improve.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

The Program

For F*** Magazine

THE PROGRAM 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Genre : Drama/Sport
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language)

We all remember Jeff Goldblum muttering to himself “must go faster, must go faster”, while being pursued by dinosaurs (and later, aliens). What happens when a man lives his life solely in the pursuit of going faster, at any cost? Lance Armstrong (Foster), having defeated cancer and becoming the darling of the professional cycling world, is admired and adored the world over, both for his multiple Tour de France championship titles and his charity work. David Walsh (O’Dowd), a sports journalist with the Sunday Times in the UK, begins to suspect that Armstrong may be using performance-enhancing drugs, despite Armstrong’s repeated and empathic claims to the contrary. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Canet) has devised “the program”, a sophisticated doping regimen that Armstrong and all the cyclists on his team are put on. The illicit drug use is enabled by Armstrong’s agent Bill Stalpleton (Pace) and the team’s directeur sportif Johann Bruyneel (Menochet). This weighs on the conscience of Floyd Landis (Plemons), a promising cyclist recruited onto the team, as Walsh gets ever closer to uncovering the devastating truth.


            The Program is inspired by David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. The film’s approach is that of a David vs. Goliath tale, with an honest journalist battling the odds to expose the deceit of a nigh-untouchable superstar athlete. As such, it is as much an “uncovering the scandal” thriller as it is a biopic, with sports in place of politics. Seeing as that’s the starting point, this was never going to be a particularly objective or balanced account of Armstrong’s life, and to an extent, that’s fine. Director Stephen Frears, whose recent credits include The Queen and Philomena, is an experienced filmmaker and The Program is assembled with style and panache. As a takedown of a false idol, it is aggressive and damning, but as a thoughtful investigative drama, it lacks clear-eyed credibility.

            The movie’s pacing is appropriately brisk, Valerio Bonelli’s editing making it all quite a heady trip. Screenwriter John Hodge ensures events unfold coherently and efficiently. Even if one isn’t into pro cycling, The Program is likely to hold one’s attention and it’s a dynamic, even thrilling film. However, it doesn’t take much to step back and go “wait a second, just how Hollywood-ed up is this thing?” The Lance Armstrong story has all the elements that make for a compelling true story: deceit, betrayal and conspiracy on a very public stage, but all those elements feel drummed up and slightly inauthentic here. Furthermore, it’s all ground that’s already been covered in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie. This reviewer was hoping the film would explore the effect that Armstrong’s deception had on his family and others close to him in more detail, but The Program trundles down a different path. Armstrong meets his wife Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), marries her in the next scene, and she’s never actually seen again, since that would slow things down.


            Armstrong as portrayed by Foster isn’t just a villain, he’s a supervillain. The film’s depiction of the cyclist is a man seduced by and obsessed with victory, a master manipulator and a detestable, unrepentant fraud. With an inspiring, carefully-constructed public persona hiding sneering malice, giving rousing speeches and comforting children in cancer wards while threatening any and all who would give away his secret, Armstrong is basically Lex Luthor. Foster puts in an electrifying, passionate performance, but it is one almost entirely devoid of nuance and altogether too difficult to take seriously. On hearing of Walsh’s accusations, Armstrong bellows “I am Lance Armstrong and he is f***ing no-one!” as he strides down a grand staircase in his mansion. Doing a spot of method acting that we’ll neither condone nor condemn, Foster actually took performance-enhancing drugs under medical supervision to better get under Armstrong’s skin.

            O’Dowd’s Walsh is a standard-issue “dogged reporter” hero, dedicated to his family and to his profession, persistent in hunting the truth to the bitter end. The character is so idealised that it’s impossible to overlook that the real-life Walsh’s account of events was the primary source for the film, and if Armstrong is a supervillain, then that must make Walsh a superhero. O’Dowd is likeable without trying too hard, and for an actor better known for playing the goofy schlub in many a comedy, he puts in a solid dramatic turn.


Canet is spectacularly over the top in this, playing Dr. Michele Ferrari like a mad scientist in a monster movie, exaggerated accent and all. “No longer confined to the earth, now we can learn to fly,” he intones, squirting droplets of Erythropoietin from a syringe. Plemons, truly coming into his own as a capable character actor, is very sympathetic as Floyd Landis, who was raised a devout Mennonite and whose father strongly discouraged his pursuit of cycling. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief appearance as Bob Hamman, the founder of SCA Promotions who sought the repayment of $10 million in prize money after discovering Armstrong was doping. In what is likely a sly reference to The Graduate, The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs. Robinson is used in the film.
There’s a fun, bitingly cynical scene in the film, in which Armstrong and his teammates are having the performance enhancing drugs administered to them and are discussing who might play Armstrong in a movie. Matt Damon is out and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name Armstrong mispronounces, is in. It’s a good thing Hollywood waited. The Program isn’t all that incisive or searing, more an entertaining diversion than awards contender prestige pic, but it is a rip-roaring ride.

Summary:Slick and entertaining but ultimately superficial, Ben Foster’s delicious albeit obvious lead performance keeps this biopic on track.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong