It’s been a great summer for films based on historical facts, three of them dealing with British history, including my previous reviews of “Dunkirk” and “Viceroy’s House.” Now we have “Victoria and Abdul,” starring Judi Dench as the long-serving Queen Victoria (much of the 19th century) and Ali Fazal (strong and touching) as a young Indian clerk who comes to England for a small ceremony, stays for over a decade and becomes an important friend and confidante to her majesty. Dench is, as always, nuanced and charismatic—what a treasure the woman is! And the cast is filled with all those exquisitely talented British thespians who are familiar to those of us who have been watching their work in British films and on Masterpiece Theater for decades: Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams et al.
The basic story (based on a true story) is that Abdul’s presence is somehow able to lift the queen out of her depression and bring new life, even joy, to the aging monarch. However, the royal household, the queen’s family and members of the government are enraged by the relationship, all having to do with the endemic racism of the day, the equally destructive class system, and plain, pure jealousy. So strongly did the friendship arouse enmity, that when the queen passed in 1901, her son ordered all traces of Abdul’s presence destroyed. It wasn’t until 2010 that evidence was uncovered about this period of history; the film is based on the revelatory book by reporter Shrabani Basu. Stephen Frears’ direction is perfect: leisurely when called for, faster-paced when needed. The script by Lee Hall, from Basu’s book, is filled with fine scenes and witty and/or profound dialog. Danny Cohen’s photography lovingly captures the richly brilliant colors of a royal life—thrones, jewels, state dinners for 40, castles and more. Highly recommended.
History again, this one more recent and American: 1972, when aging tennis champion Bobby Riggs challenged reigning women’s tennis champ Billy Jean King to a contest between them, giving rise to “The Battle of the Sexes.” This reviewer loved the movie; in fact, by the end, I was exhausted because it is so well done, I felt as though I was partaking in that final match, stroke for stroke. It’s that kind of film—it draws us in, gives us in-depth insights into both Riggs (Steve Carell) and King (Emma Stone) that are unexpected from a film based on—let’s face it—a publicity-grabbing circus stunt from the early days of women’s liberation. Historians have deemed 1968 as the official date for the resurgence of female empowerment, so the film takes place a mere four years from that date. Women on the tennis circuit are woefully underpaid for the receipts they bring in (equal to the men’s). Not only that but they are institutionally condescended to by men in power, told by Riggs and others to “get back to the kitchen and the bedroom, where they belong.” Billy Jean, tired of being treated like a third-class citizen, creates the independent Women’s Pro Tour, along with all the other female players of the day. Eventually this leads to the final battle and a resounding finish it is.
To say that the movie has so much more depth than expected is to salute the writer Simon Beaufoy, the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and, for sure, the spot-on performances by Stone and Carell. Both Riggs and King were undergoing personal challenges at the time: King was dealing with her sexual identity, simmering rage underneath a quiet surface, and the demise of a marriage; Riggs was struggling with a gambling problem, the despair of aging and the unmasking of his clown persona. Both Stone and Carell mine the depths of their characters for moments of vulnerability as well their fierce competitiveness and they do it brilliantly. By the way, “Battle of the Sexes” is also quite a funny film too. It has it all.