Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (****) and Victoria & Abdul (***): Two pieces of a life continued

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Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown – 1997
Victoria & Abdul – 2017

Director (HMMB) John Madden, (V&A) Stephen Frears
Screenplay (HMMB) Jeremy Brock, (V&A) Lee Hall
Starring (HMMB) Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Antony Sher, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, David Westhead, Gerard Butler
(V&A)  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith

Seeing that Dame Judi Dench had reprised her role as latter-day Victoria 20 years after her first go-round must have been interesting to some. The first film grossed about 9 million world-wide, and this time it’s bordering on 5x that much. The passage of time has helped, one would guess. There is a much deeper appreciation for one of the best actresses of our time. Also, one could guess, there has been a swath of people who enjoyed the first film through other media. After having watched both in one day, I am glad that there can be sequels to movies about a Queen in the twilight of her reign, even if the sequel amounts to a little less of the same.

The first film, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, is a measure of acting by three actors.

Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Queen Victoria. To be sure, she gives a complete performance here. She’s a woman who’s given everything that she doesn’t quite want and by now mostly expects in her life. The thing she wants most, however, is the her husband. When we see her first, she’s in her third year of mourning Prince Albert. The film immediately brings in someone her husband had an immense fondness for in Scottish servant, John Brown (Connolly). The power of the film is presented in their subtle development of their relationship. It is really quite impressive because Connolly’s Brown is not a subtle man in the slightest.

Running earnestly roughshod through the lives of Victoria and her court, he ruffles feathers and gets panties in a bunch. While he never quite wins over the rest of the household, he certainly does win the affections of the Queen. It is a testament to Madden, Connolly and especially Dench that this never trips into areas that are really unknown. We see that there is genuine affection between both of them, but the public face is never quite revealed. This is the strength of the film and story. The public face of Victoria is never more than propriety, but it is never shown to be someone locked in the castle, either. She is a monarch, to be sure.

For his part, Connolly is incredibly engaging and committed to the performance. That he did not receive more substantial roles as a result of this film is a crime. He shows strength, perception and vulnerability in his role as a man who doesn’t realize he’s reached beyond his station in life. I truly enjoyed Connolly in this and every role I have seen him in and hope that somehow we see more of him.

The third winning performance is that of Antony Sher as Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Sher’s performance is a surprise to me, but apparently not to those who have seen him perform live. His Disraeli is a man of most lethal cunning, kind of Bill Clinton for the time. To be sure, you’d rather have him on your side, than working against you. It’s apparent that he’s got more going on than he reveals no matter to whom he is speaking. His charm, however, is undeniable. It’s born of intelligence that most around him just don’t have. If one compares the way Brown works the rest of the people in his life and is so completely out-maneuvered by Disraeli, the effect is immense and obvious.

To be sure, he is not a villain. He is the prime minister of a country whose constitution requires a monarch. More importantly, his party requires her conservative influence, which is lacking in the years since her husband’s death. Sher reveals all of the measures of these influences, and throws in a little arrogance for good measure. It’s a role I have enjoyed more with the passage of time.

Madden would go on to win an Oscar for directing in his very next film, Shakespeare in Love. He would also achieve modest financial success with many of his films until striking gold with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. His talent is in coaxing great performances out of good actors and classic performances from great actors. There are some beautiful scenes, but nothing that brings as much wonder as seeing the balance of power shift between Victoria, John, Benjamin and the people that surround them.

His portrayal of the people surrounding The Queen and Brown is more nuanced than one might expect, after years of Julian Fellowes productions come and gone. We are given subtle looks of concern and a smattering of ignorance. More importantly, we see John Brown overstep his bounds among the servants and the family, essentially presenting himself on a perch from which to be knocked off. When he does finally get a beating, two smart things happen. The director doesn’t make it obvious who may have done it and he also doesn’t play pity points for Brown. This only serves to make his relationship with the Queen less black and white. And that is good.

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Somewhat more obvious and less dramatic are the events of Victoria & Abdul. Historians and anglophiles alike were granted a repeat showing of the relationship between Brown and Queen Victoria. In life, it seemed an even more questionable relationship between what was possibly a charlatan and his target demographic: an older, forgotten person. Whether there is a certain truth to it, or it was the product of subtle historic racism is a question worth asking. It’s not a question that is asked as much here.

This time, we see an older, more defeated and seemingly lost Victoria, who confides to missing both her husband and John Smith terribly. This rings curious when one considers how distant she was toward the end of Smith’s life. Dench, however, is up to the task of making us relate to her misery. The opening shows the viewer an old, overweight woman who is being pushed through each day. The scene in the dining hall is a comic masterpiece, from the little boy running screaming his head off, to the adults running and screaming their heads off, to the Queen eating in a rapid pace compared to her guests right up to the point when she falls asleep mid meal.

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The meeting and eventual friendship of the Queen and Abdul Karim (Fazal) seems a little rushed, compared to the straightforward negotiations between Smith and Victoria. The script appears to have its mind on other things, such as establishing the fact that Abdul is not a Hindu, but instead he is a peaceful Muslim. To the film’s credit, the scenes feel less political and more instructional.  There are no sideways jabs at Muslim phobia, it’s just plain old British panties in a bunch and the teasing of potential ribaldry.

This is also the place where the film differs from the more dramatic John Smith. It feels like Dench is the only actor that is caught up in a drama. Everyone around her seems to be in a comedy. This works, for the most part, if you’re not expecting Shakespeare. And I do mean Shakespearean comedy.

The scenery and images are sublime, and seeing Dench’s extension of her character works right up until the point where she gives her last speech, removing any of the doubt of her cognitive abilities.

It would have been more interesting if they’d left the question of her senility out there unanswered. And maybe if Abdul had some amount of depth to his character, maybe some question of his sincerity…

There’s none of that here, though. We get Fazal playing straight up and honest, to the point that his buddy and partner Mohammed (Akhtar) keeps thinking they have a chance to go home soon. This would lend itself to everyone being straight up. Having the Queen insist on calling him Munshi (teacher) removes any amount of character he might have accumulated in working an angle. Everything that happens makes him look the part of a puppet on a string. This is to the detriment of the story, but it works as comedy.

What doesn’t work as much is Izzard as the woeful Bertie. His character, as written, is even more incompetent than he was in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. Westhead’s Bertie takes a tongue lashing from Brown, but is otherwise rather unspectacular. In the new story, Izzard, Hall and Frears never pass up an opportunity to make Bertie appear to be the most incompetent of boobs.

The rest of the cast spends most of their time looking worried, offended or both. There is one particularly effective scene when Miss Phipps shows herself to be the lone voice of reason among the staff. For her trouble, she is granted the reward of giving the Queen an ultimatum that she had no part in deciding.

This is Dench’s show though, and she doesn’t waste her opportunity. Her understanding of the character is complete, to the point where we feel we literally know the Queen of England through the latter half of her life in watching these two films. The growth she shows from the first until the last scene feels authentic and weathered. Madden and Frears allow her the freedom to look completely uncomfortable with her lot in life.

It’s unclear whose decision it was to make it look like the Queen was completely washed from the sins of the oppression of the British Empire over their subjects. It’s a thin line to walk, making her so innocent, observant and wise at once. It doesn’t serve the story, but it definitely gives us the ability to see how brilliantly she can play it.

These films are not to be missed, if you want to see a master at her best. If forced to choose, I will take Connolly, Sher and Dench over Dench by ostensibly by herself.

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (**** out of *****)
Victoria & Abdul (*** out of *****)

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The Big Sick (*****) is graceful, genuine and funny

Big Sick.jpgThe Big Sick – 2017

Director Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam, Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kurt Braunohler, Shenaz Treasury, Vela Lovell, Zenobia Shroff

However much of the events that inspire a story like The Big Sick, the important thing is whether they are transpired in a manner that is true to how we live. There are so many events in this story that could have happened in any of our lives, it doesn’t really matter if the embellish a detail or two. What they don’t exaggerate is the importance of being a true person no matter where you fall in a story.

“Don’t you ever want to just be in a relationship so you can just finally relax?”

This is a line that is stated by a character who is in the film for perhaps five minutes. Her name is Khadija (Lovell), and she is one of many young women who’ve been set up for Kumail in an attempt to arrange marriage, as is Pakistani tradition. She is just one of the many beautiful women he has no interest in. She is, in that small space of celluloid, someone we all can identify with.

As Khadija says this, it’s clear that she’s just exhausted. She’s been through the ringer too many times to put on her best face. I looked over at my wife and she looked at me. We’ve were both there, many years ago.  Through everything we’ve seen as a couple, we’ve felt that relaxation. We never want to lose that feeling.

That there are several real male and female characters in The Big Sick is a tribute to its writers, the real life couple whose story is presented in the film. There are very few caricatures in the film. The ones that might qualify are so deftly handled, it just feels like a person we know and not a punchline waiting around to be had.

So many times when watching films about the life of a comedian you have several people who could fit in any cliché. There’s the buddy comedian, the nemesis comedian, the one that’s just not funny. In this case, these are friends who are all pretty funny. Even the one they say isn’t that funny.

The story is about the real life relationship of Emily and Kumail. They meet, become a couple, find out they’ve not been completely honest with each other and break up. Then she gets sick and he’s brought back into her life. Though she never has a say about it, since she’s in a coma.

As a couple, Emily and Kumail are cute without being precious. He’s got habits and a routine of bringing women into his life and “initiating” them with his favorite B movies. She’s clever enough to call him out on it. He’s genuine enough to admit it. She’s not mean, though. He has a one man show that’s not good. She asks questions that get him to think, but it doesn’t pound the point home with the audience. We know she has to be good for him. The change doesn’t need to be instantaneous.

The truths they are reluctant to share are two. First, Emily had been married before. Second, Kumail’s got a box of pictures of suitor women that his family had presented him with. This brings about a conversation on Kumail’s family. Emily still hadn’t met them after 6 months. Why? Well…

So the film kicks into a second gear, where Kumail carries a lot of the weight in navigating between his family and Emily’s parents. This handled with the same honesty the rest of the film has and it’s wonderful.

Kumail’s not the perfect Muslim. In fact, he’s about the same with his religion as I have occasionally felt in my travel through life.

When talking with Emily’s mother (brilliantly played by Hunter) she asks him how his parents met. He explains it was a blind date set up to a movie. She asks what movie they saw. That he didn’t know the movie his parents went to when they met says a lot about him. That Kumail realizes it and moves towards understanding shows even more. That this is a detail asked by a peripheral character says a lot about those who wrote it.

There are literally dozens of other avenues like this. Many things that resonate for people who’ve ever been disappointed by or risked disappointing their family. Compatibility is a thousand points that can match and one that hits awkwardly. Or maybe two…or a hundred.

It’s also being in a universe where you can’t imagine being together and somehow one thing just works.  It takes kindness, forgiveness and a willingness to listen. It’s pretty clear to me this film was created by people who know how to listen.

The performances, direction and writing are all exceptional. As much as one enjoys Hunter’s Beth, Shroff is excellent as Kumail’s mother, who is constantly interrupting dinner with “I wonder who that could be?” as she heads to open the front door to another possible suitor. Kher’s Azmat is a gentle and loving father, just like Romano’s Terry.  Kumail’s interactions with both are filled with such nuance, it feels right.

This feels like a Judd Apatow film. It’s got a few less rough edges, but it’s also not trying to be edgy. It’s just a story about a boy who meets a girl and everyone else they know is like everyone else we know.

Drive through still sucks, too.

(***** out of *****)