Tag Archives | Stephen Frears

Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

The light, inconsquential Victoria & Abdul steps around its most pressing questions to deliver two solid title performances in what is best described as a going of age picture for Focus Features (a Comcast company, as the audience is obnoxiously reminded in opening titles). The story of a bond between an Islamic Indian servant and the queen of England romanticizes both multiculturalism and monarchy in a lilting, interracial fantasy which is both limited and relatively innocuous.

Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and War Horse), Victoria & Abdul is almost entirely crafted in its poster, title and tagline that this is history’s most unlikely friendship. I kept waiting for the reason why as I was drawn into this exotic Asian world of the man summoned to serve the monarch. Without much to go by, Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench, who played the same queen in Mrs. Brown, and Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal) are prisoners of their cultures, really, and they find in each other a range of shared values.

At least that’s how they are depicted in this adaptation of a book apparently based on the discovery of Abdul’s writings, though the opening credits also warn that license has been taken with their story, too. As it is, the old queen who feels like a silly old woman until the handsome young Indian looks upon her has lived most of her life. She slurps her soup, tears at her meat and gets a bit piggish with her dessert. But Queen Victoria is essentially dazed and dormant, literally sleeping and snoring when she first appears, until the warm, inviting gaze of the poetic coin-bearer enters her sheltered, scheduled life. When she brings him and his fellow Indian traveling companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), on board, it’s almost immediately like a geriatric Roman Holiday.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Henderson Presents, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen, Philomena), who understands good humor, deft dramatic details and, above all, directing Judi Dench, whom he has directed in five movies, the cinematography, song and dance are as entertaining as one might expect. Thomas Newman’s musical score is among the best assets, as is the late Tim Piggott-Smith (Alice in Wonderland, Creedy in V for Vendetta) as Henry, one of the less caricatured royal attendants, who quite predictably do not accept Abdul.

For his part, Abdul from the outset knows English better than the English do. He’s eager to serve the queen, and eager to continue serving, after being instructed that essence of service is “standing still and moving backwards”, one of the better lines in Victoria & Abdul. Abdul is wide awake and ready to awaken Victoria from her slumber. It is hard not to like Abdul, except that he’s a blank slate, taking the 81-year-old woman on walks among the tree-filtered sunshine while he talks in bromides and tells her when she opens up that “we are here for the good of others”. He knows that she seeks knowledge and he steps up to provide it and, when it becomes clear that he’s Islamic (in a generic way) and keeps other secrets, he quotes the Koran and adopts the infidel and her country more or less as his own. As he quotes Rumi, teaches her Urdu, and, in a memorable scene, is enchanted by Puccini, Abdul trades as well as he’s able.

As a Moslem, Abdul is unholy, self-centered and inconsiderate. Taking in stories of Medici, he offers his own thoughts on art, the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne. He kisses and dances with the queen, who falls in love with love again while singing Gilbert & Sullivan and, tellingly, Abdul ignores Mohammed to whom he promised a quick return to the homeland. For her part, the queen disavows her staff and family and describes a burka as “splendid”. This is when it becomes clear that Victoria & Abdul amounts to benign playacting between two prisoner-impostors in a game well played. Victoria really may turn out to be a silly old woman out for a good time.

With a fatwa or Islamic death decree against the queen, disease and knighthood at stake, Victoria & Abdul could be much richer than it turns out to be. To its credit, and Victoria & Abdul is closer in theme and tone to Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears’ movie depicts what he called in an afterwards interview the “ridiculousness of royalty”. But skirting contradictions detracts from the movie’s intended sweetness. After all, there is nothing splendid about a woman being covered in cloth from head to toe on the premise that woman must be concealed because man is mindless. Or that a person with a crown can “have one billion citizens” after 62 years in office or that Abdul’s life is ultimately anything but deeply sad and subservient. But these two gamers forge a bond as true as possible, amid the magic of snowfall, as the pair trade gentle, deliberate breaths, his for the promise of her — and hers for the fact of him.


An interview with director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench after today’s screening at the ArcLight Hollywood was the usual mix of generic, fawning and flawed questions (for instance, Ms. Dench had to correct the interviewer, who apparently thought Frears directed her in Mrs. Brown) and silly audience antics. But seeing this grand movie star and her extremely talented director was worth the hassle and indignity.

Dench, who looks fabulous, discussed her contention that Queen Victoria was depressed at that later stage of her life “because there weren’t any more treats on the way”, as she put it. Victoria wrote up to four letters a day to Abdul, who, Frears wryly pointed out to laughter, was mere steps away in the royal palace. To one audience member’s question about what she’s learned during her marvelous career, Ms. Dench replied that she’s learned that she now grasps the truth about acting that less is, in fact, more, as in better, which she added she did not know when she was playing Ophelia on stage when she was 23 years old. And she also said that the camera picks up the thoughts in your head. After Frears, an excellent director with whom it’s clear she shares a deep connection, answered that he could not have conceived that he’d be sitting in an ArcLight Cinemas Q & A when he was young because he was constantly “terrified”, his leading actress jumped in and urged the audience to embrace the terror.

“Turn fear into a kind of petrol,” she said. Judi Dench commented regarding a question about locations in Victoria & Abdul that she loved the cold, wind and wet of Scotland. She interjected that the lack of sex after Mr. Brown died led to Queen Victoria being relegated to food as her only joy which was why the queen was obese. The actress who played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, an eccentric artist in Tea With Mussolini, damaged Agniss in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News, greedy Ursula in Ladies in Lavender, a predatory lesbian in Notes on a Scandal, Annie Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s underrated J. Edgar, title characters in Frears’ Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, a boss in several 007 films and the glorious old diabetic radical Armande in Lasse Hallstrom’s enchanting Chocolat, emphasized that she is certain that Abdul prolonged the queen of England’s life.

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Have you wanted something badly enough to be blinded by the wanting? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the newest movie by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents) about a matronly woman who bucks the status quo for her own private reasons of innermost agony. The humor is as broad, the delivery as dry and the showmanship as campy and bawdy as in his previous outings.

This time, however, the woman’s life is itself more centrally at stake.

FFJ_1SHT_MAIN_fff-600x878The title character is, once again, based upon a real person. As portrayed by showy Meryl Streep (Hope Springs, The Iron Lady, Suffragette, The Giver, Into the Woods), playing an old woman as old for the first time in her long and enduring career, the title character is a haughty eccentric with an impetuous and checkered past which jeopardizes her health. Paramount’s marketing has successfully established for the audience in advance that Jenkins is an awful singer who skates along taking voice lessons and singing out of tune.

Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes why she does that. While you’re waiting for the big moment, whatever it may be, Florence Foster Jenkins dramatizes something else, though, too; how being a failure in some endeavors can let you cash in on other, higher values.

Florence Foster Jenkins is not as sentimental as it sounds, and it’s a complicated, lush and polished Forties-in-New York-City affair which makes you laugh at the main character, double check the laughter and think twice about what the whole movie means (as Frears pictures usually do).

Opening credits play on New York’s skyline, teasing the romp to come. Decked in outrageous costumes and prancing around her marriage to Hugh Grant’s Shakespearean actor, who’s reduced to being her manager, Jenkins has good taste in music. She favors Chopin. She creates an appreciation club for Verdi. She supports her conductor friend Toscanini. But the rotund heiress, who once played piano in the White House as a child, can’t sing. That she really, really wants to sing and is oblivious to her inability makes most of the movie’s humor.

Hugh Grant shines portraying her husband, who, incidentally, really, really wants to act. He arranges an elaborate facade which becomes the film’s farcical conflict, evoking the spirit of the lighter, naughtier Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The dreadful private shows are hilariously deceitful whatever the ethics and it’s hard to suppress laughter no matter how hard you try. Enter an expressive, young pianist (perfectly cast Simon Helberg) with an ambition to match hers and the plot deepens.

For a time, screenwriter Nicholas Martin seems to lampoon serious artists but that’s not a Frears imprint. Then, there seems to be a contest between loyalty and unchecked or unearned ambition but that’s not it, either. How then to account for a movie that holds its ardent fool in high regard? This puzzle is part of what makes Florence Foster Jenkins, neatly scored by Alexandre Desplat, engaging, if not flawless. As the young performer comes out, and how and what he comes out and into happens in gentle and suggestive ways, this Paramount picture’s theme that art in general and music in particular, from opera’s Verdi to jazz’s Louis Armstrong, inspires one to become stronger for life takes shape.

This happens in a scene at the young man’s home, a warm, lived in place of solitude where he conditions and practices with relaxed, monastic devotion. It’s a lovely scene for its bonding and it marks the transition of Florence Foster Jenkins from a snickering, snorting romp to an elegy for making real in one’s life the track that plays in one’s mind.

In an age of flickering amusements by American Idol‘s Sanjaya or William Hung, as well as more lasting, damaging fakes and frauds named Kardashian and Trump, it’s natural to laugh at what’s ridiculous. In a culture of faking, it’s harder to grasp that goodness—and a sense of benevolence gives Florence Foster Jenkins its wings—starts with honest effort, even if you fail to pull it off (and more so, in the case of Susan Boyle, if you do). Not every moment rises above what can also be acknowledged as a sad, tragic spectacle. But neither is every moment a jab or a joke about telling a gigantic lie and the best scenes depict with sincerity and strength the attempt to reconcile one’s damaged life in a perfectly balanced note.

Movie Review: Philomena

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Philomena dramatizes an act of force caused by faith and ameliorated by an act of trade.

Throughout the picture, on many levels, two parties exchange values. The plot begins with a young, unwed couple having sex during a carnival. It moves to the young, unwed woman giving birth at an Irish convent, where she has been sent as a sinner. There, she is kept until, as most people reading this know, the child is given up for adoption. The woman, Philomena Lee, a real person portrayed here by the indomitable Judi Dench, seeks as an elderly woman to find her stolen son.

His name is Anthony. For most of Philomena’s adult life, all that’s known about him is what memories she gained during her brief time with her son at the convent before he was taken: Anthony clutching a toy airplane. Anthony with his playmate Mary. Anthony with the toy airplane again. A lifetime after he was adopted by an American couple, insatiable Philomena, seeking answers from the Catholic convent, wants to know about his life.

By all evidence, including an intelligent, adult daughter, Philomena has gone on to live a happy, rich life, working as a psychiatric nurse. But this only makes her want to take stock of her son’s life, what became of him, whether he thought about her as she thought about him, and other thoughts that any selfish parent would think. Through her daughter, she meets a cynical, pompous and pretentious journalist (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script) who worked in left-wing politics and lost his reputation. He reluctantly hears her story out and accepts an assignment to write about Philomena’s search.

Together, these two sinners in politics and religion set out to find facts, lose, keep or have faith and, locate the man who was once a boy known as Anthony. In the end, what they find foremost are lessons from one another. Coogan’s obnoxious writer, Martin, earns self-respect. Philomena finds salvation. As they venture to the United States, relocating Mary (Mare Winningham) and various people connected to Philomena’s son, their trade – his ability to think for her capacity to believe – allows them to form a mutual bond like that of a mother and son. The messiness of three such despised and low, depraved institutions, politics, the press and religion, intervenes. Through it all, Philomena and her researcher-reporter sort the issues in what amounts to an honest, enveloping search for meaning in life.

Yes, Philomena is that serious and that enjoyable. They travel here and there from London to Washington, DC, exploring belief, gossip, doubt, sex, love and life, circling back to their own innermost insecurities and powerful realizations about their shared, fundamental flaw: self-denial. This is a very Catholic idea and this is a very un-Catholic movie, a fact which Catholics I know seem to sense about Philomena sight unseen. But Philomena, made by the Weinstein Company, is not an anti-Catholic picture. To a certain degree, it holds back on judging the evil done to mother and child, a subtle but serious flaw but more about that later.

The pairings – mother and son, church and parishioner, avenged and avenger – continuously and brilliantly loop until the movie comes to America in earnest and goes far and wide, expanding and opening into bright colors, outdoor spaces and glorious discoveries. Philomena in exploring life and one’s fitness for life finds the holy grail: the United States of America. This sacred ground is worshipped here, with reverence for our philosophical forefathers Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and all things American, including the most frivolous joys such as comedy in motion pictures. In America, Philomena searching for her son is enlightened, ennobled and uplifted and finally rejuvenated – and not without wry observations and real pain and rejection – and, intentionally or not, Philomena recognizes the U.S. for its highest achievement: the country founded on the selfish pursuit of one’s happiness and the liberty to live as one chooses.

Without giving away the plot, this is what Philomena discovers about her son. She answers her own central, driving question about her fitness for motherhood and finds and deposits the values she gains from the trade with Martin. All is bittersweet, and unbearable, unlikeable Martin, too, is finally and rightly put in his place. For its part, the Catholic Church gets off easy and this prevents Philomena from achieving greatness. By controversially taking license with the real facts and singling out one nun, the film’s evil Hildegard, whose morality is fundamentally Christian, Philomena turns the other cheek on the Church’s complicity in the injustice done to Philomena Lee. The true story is undeniably much worse than what is depicted in this film; the magnitude of widespread, institutional conspiracy to do evil to fellow men and women is enormous even on Philomena’s terms. To telescope, composite and apparently fictionalize the abbey’s acts of faith and force to one nun minimizes the pure evil done there. What the Church did to this woman is an atrocity. Pinning it on Sister Hildegard lets the Catholic Church off the hook.

Nevertheless, director Stephen Frears has created what amounts to the third piece of a trilogy in movies depicting deep, interesting women of our times. His Mrs. Henderson Presents also gave us Judi Dench bucking tradition in wartime London as a widow and mother in mourning who dared to bring pleasure to the men who fought for England. His film The Queen did right by a strong British woman who is also the queen of England remaking tradition for the good. His treasure Philomena, flawlessly scored by Alexandre Desplat, delivers the tale of an ordinary Irishwoman who goes against the Catholic Church, tradition and, moreover, the looming darkness of modern civilization, for her own knowledge, enlightenment and happiness. With Judi Dench, as she did as a grandmother in Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, layering scene after scene of a person falling in love with life all over again, Mr. Frears’ Philomena is a triumph.