“Victoria and Abdul”

Judi Dench is Queen of England, Empress of India, and an actress who can make the most ardent Anglophobe feel compassion for the lot of a lonesome monarch. After watching the PBS mini-series “Victoria” (2017) and seeing the girl-queen circa 1837, it is interesting to see her fifty years later making a confidant out of a tall and  handsome youth from Agra, India. 1887 has her nine children later and prone to nod-off and snore even during celebratory events. Abdul ‘s attention gives her back that spark of life. In truth, no one can put that lustful pronunciation of ” my munshi ” quite like Dench. Film director Stephen Frears shows her Golden Jubilee as a comedy of manners.

Strong-willed, her husband dead at forty-two, Victoria sat sixty-three years on the throne. Author Shrabani Basu while writing a book on curry knew of the Queen’s penchant for the Indian dish. Basu mulled through millions of words in Victoria’s extant diaries and wondered about a formal portrait of a young Indian man painted as an aristocrat. ” Victoria and Abdul” was born. Screenwriter Lee Hall uses Basu’s research and book to show us the prejudices of the court and the mind-romancing of the queen for the handsome Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal ).

Episode after episode, we hear of rules: do not look at the queen, stand till the end of the meal, process together backward. The churlish queen is portrayed as tired of it all. The Hindi chide about the royal pudding being made with cow bone: the English regarded as barbaric eaters. The class divide is the divide. It is only as her teacher, or “munshi”, that we understand the thirteen-year relationship where Abdul instructs Victoria in Urdu and on the poetry of Rumi. He becomes a platonic  Mr. Brown.

Their relationship is portrayed as endearing while troublesome for the heirs and Prime Minister. The Queen appoints Abdul as her personal guide to India. The Taj Mahal and the mango is juxtaposed against wet and windy Scotland and its whiskey. Aristocrats toadying for position and even her own children can not compete with Abdul’s charm and world view: we are here for the aid of others.

There is much give and take. The Queen presents Abdul with a locket enclosing her portrait. She whispers, ” Keep me safe”. She introduces him to Puccini and to Florence.  Viewers see the one villain in Bertie, her eldest son. He has Abdul’s home ransacked for any embarrassing memorabilia. Abdul’s wife manages to save the locket from the flames. Bertie considers having his mother certified as insane. Before the Queen’s death scene, she tells Abdul that it is time he return to India. ” The vultures are circling. How can I protect you?!” Melodramatic and fanciful, yes.

Her name defined the Victorian Age, and now we have another name to add: Abdul Karim, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Yes, he may have been currying favor and beating the sycophants at their own game; but in this film, he brought joy to a morose queen tired of jealous skullduggery and pomp.

“Florence Foster Jenkins”

The French film ” Marguerite” was reviewed April 2, 2016 in my blog <www.filmflamb.wordpress.com.>  Five  months later, I find myself reviewing  the American version of this  deluded songstress.  Both  quasi- biographical takes of the Florence Foster Jenkins story are worthy of genuflection.

Director Stephen Frears, of ” Philomena” fame, ( reviewed February 12th , 2015) and the  talented writer Nicholas Martin  bring  us a sweeter tale. As Huge Grant , in a tad more snarky than saccharine aside,  says ” ours is a very happy world”.

Grant provides the best performance of his career as Jenkin’s charmingly Earlish husband and caregiver. He knows how his bread is buttered. Half cad, half protector, Grant has never been more tender as he removes his wife’s glued on lashes and wig. As the suave, privileged and ” betuxed” St. Clair, he is at home with ,” A taxi if I may”.

He controls all he can. In one scene, a half dozen auditioning pianists are sitting and waiting to vie for a  well-paid position. Grant glides by and admonishes them with ” those chairs are not for practical use, you have been told.” He is both touching and touchy, devoted and self-serving, a fawner  and a scoffer, both loyal and disloyal. Even with Meryl Streep’s admirable performance, Grant is the star here. We have never seen him better. “Reading a little Austen” may be my favorite line!  As is  his twinkling “love takes many forms”.

The French film  is more true to the actual meaning of Jenkins’ life. Both films include the mistress and the accompanist/pianist, but in strikingly different ways. In “Marguerite”, Florence spots her husband with his mistress and is devastated rather than like in this film, having him actually live in a love/party nest that she pays for. In this American film,Mistress Kathleen is named and lives as a demanding second wife with St. Clair Bayfield.

Costuming is over the top in both films including Victoria Secret angel wings to turbans , tiaras, and pearls.  Streep’s headdresses  shimmer with her every screech. From the beginning tableaux, she is the “deus ex machina” of the screen. We expect the best from her. Here she give the worst ~the best, and does not disappoint. Her “stay the night” oozes loneliness, and her briefcase lugging underscores that she knows inherently where her power lies. We all want loyalty. She knows deep down that she buys hers.

Streep does a wonderfully understated scene as she explains to her pianist Cosme McMoon ( Simon Helberg ) that she has dealt with the ravages of syphilis for fifty- years, her first husband’s ” gift”!  At other times, she seems to be channeling Lucille Ball ( not a bad thing). The maestro’s  litany of instructions: ” Raise the soft palate”, “On the breath”, “Use the air”, ” Project forward”, ” Find the breath, Florence” lead to  hysterical results.

Simon Helberg rounds out the incredible acting . As Cosme McMoon, his mime-like expressions when Streep begins her caterwauling are priceless. It is through his questioning  and their conversing that we learn how she met her second husband and see how sharp objects unbalance the little ballast that she has. When they play Chopin together, it is marvelously sad. There are some funny touches. Florence is fond of music, yes, but also of sandwiches and potato salad. One image has a server scooping out large serving spoonfuls from a bath tub.

The French film’s setting is more opulent, 1920  Gatsby style. There are fifty or more servants, marbled entryways and gardened grounds. The American film is more Victorian in decor with only one servant, Kitty.  The American film begins in New York, 1944, the year of Jenkins ‘s death. I liked the darker French version with its theme of lust for fame. The American “Florence Jenkins Foster” has Foster comparing herself to Churchill,  while bringing in war veterans, Cole Porter and Tallullah Bankhead. It is more farcical and underscores ” singing your heart out”. The French film was more vainglorious spectacle.

Streep’s death- bed remarks of ” no one can say I didn’t sing” has that ” at least I tried” kind of ring. The French are a tad more demanding  and judgmental of life choices.