Stephen Frears

Victoria and Abdul

27/09/17

It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.

Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.

This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?

Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Florence Foster Jenkins

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16/05/16

The last time we saw the chameleon that is Meryl Streep in a musical role it was in Rikki and the Flash, where she managed to utterly convince as an ageing rocker with a troublesome daughter. The titular Florence Foster Jenkins is something else entirely. Streep plays a genuine historical character who lived only for music and who enacted a whole series of infamous concerts during the 1940s.

She was remarkable for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, she’d been a musical prodigy but an unwelcome dose of syphilis, passed on to her by her first husband when she was eighteen, had left her incapable of playing the piano. Her only other option was to sing and luckily for her, she had inherited her father’s fortune and was able to fund a series of private concerts. The reviews were generally favourable, largely because of the sterling efforts of her second husband, former actor St Clare Bayfield (played here with great charm by Hugh Grant) who smoothed his wife’s path by bribing reviewers and ensuring that she never ever witnessed people laughing at her – something they were likely to do, because of course, she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.

The film opens with her auditioning for an accompanist and she soon settles on Cosme McMoon (a beautifully understated turn by Simon Helberg) who finds himself conflicted by his desire to play good music and his understandable horror at the noises he hears coming from the mouth of Ms Jenkins. The situation is manageable when the concerts are kept small and intimate but when on a whim, Jenkins books herself a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of 3000, it’s clear that Bayfield and McMoon are going to have a more difficult job on their hands. And to compound matters, she’s only gone and made a blooming record!

This is a slight but perfectly judged film, skilfully directed by Stephen Frears and built around a wonderful comic performance from Streep. If you think there’s not much humour to be milked from such a tragic premise, don’t be fooled – you’ll laugh your way through much of this and towards the end, you’ll almost certainly be close to tears. The script, by Nicholas Martin, is adept at confounding your expectations. Bayfield, who at first appears to be an unspeakable cad (he led a double life, living with a young woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)) clearly did love his wife and lavished great care and attention on her at every turn, unlike musical virtuosos such as Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Edwards, who happily took a series of cheques from her but never once turned up to show their support.

In an age where the likes of The X Factor and BGT have elevated the championing of musical mediocrity to an art form, Jenkins’ story seems a particularly prescient one – and for Streep’s performance alone, this is worth seeking out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Program

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06/11/15

Lance Armstrong was the consummate all-American hero. He famously overcame testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour De France seven times in a row. Along the way, he founded a cancer charity, became a spokesman for the underdog, inspired people to excel and made millions from sponsorship and endorsements. It was all based upon a lie. He was using performance enhancing drugs to achieve his spectacular results and when the truth finally came out, his glorious career lay in tatters.

All this, of course, is well known. Now here’s Stephen Frears biopic, which dramatises the story. What it is, is a stripped-down, turbo-charged version of the events, but it’s light on truth and even lighter on detail. We first meet Armstrong (Ben Foster)  when he’s in his 20s, when he realises pretty quickly that he’s never going to become a winner in his chosen sport, unless he joins in with the practise of doping, something that most of his competitors seem to be well versed in. He makes friends with journalist David Walsh (Chris O Dowd) who is initially a fan; but when Armstrong starts to easily win races that he’s previously failed at, alarm bells start to go off in Walsh’s head. The problem is, why do his fellow journalists fail to detect something fishy going on? Soon, Armstrong and Walsh are bitter enemies.

The main reason to see The Program is to relish Ben Fosters’ extraordinary performance in the title role. His depiction of an obsessive man consumed with hubris is quite extraordinary and the fact that he physically resembles Armstrong is just the icing on the cake. But back to the film’s shortcomings. For us to fully appreciate Armstong’s fall from grace, it would be necessary to learn more about his private life. But this is simply airbrushed over. A five year marriage to Kristen Richard is reduced to a single scene of them walking down the aisle together. There’s no sign of the three children they had. Likewise, his year long engagement to musician Sheryl Crow. The only mention of her is that the two of them are ‘friends’. And finally, his relationship with longterm girlfriend Anna Hanson, (who he’s still with) isn’t even mentioned, let alone the two kids they had together.

Stephen Frears is a veteran director, so I can’t believe he’s simply chosen to skip over such important details. Could it be that certain people didn’t want to be involved? At any rate, The Program is perfectly watchable, but it feels suspiciously like the edited highlights of a movie – the full impact of his disgrace fails to come across, largely because we don’t see the repercussions it has on those who loved him. So, in a strange way, the film is as much of a cheat as Armstrong himself.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly enjoyable fare. But you’re left with the conviction that it could so easily have been something much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney