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Victoria and Abdul

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Victoria and Abdul

It’s a safe bet that audiences who gather for Victoria and Abdul will arrive with differing expectations. Yes, it’s about Queen Victoria, but is it history or a fictional anecdote? Neither. It begins as a tender comedy wrapped in the rules and customs of 19th century Britain and based somewhat loosely on the facts of Victoria’s life.

Watching the story unfold after stepping into a theater from the reality of 21st century America adds to the humor of this particular tale. Can this ever have happened? You bet, though remember the wonderful introductory hint offered us as the lights go down: “This movie is based on historical facts, mostly.” The extraordinary Judi Dench delivers the stratified society to us with perfect timing as she recreates the lonely queen. The result? A history lesson with a conspiratorial wink.

The early scenes introduce us to the dour queen and her love of eating meals at the head of the table while she is miserable with the crowd of fellow diners who bore her thoroughly. She eats and sleeps her way through dull days and is attended by dozens of servants who dress her, do her hair, and prepare her to step out in public. In short alternating scenes we meet Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) a clerk from India who has been chosen for his looks and height as the right person to present a beautiful jeweled locket to the queen. It is a gift to be proudly given from this country in her Empire.

Abdul, who has been warned that he must never make eye contact with the queen, does so immediately as he presents the gift to her. Because each has been drawn in such grand detail in the early scenes, we know instantly that Victoria has met the one human being she can relate to with quiet pleasure. She asks him to teach her the language and to explain the culture since she can’t go there for fear of assassination. Their quiet, respectful interaction makes a mockery of the formality that has been her world for 62 years. He teaches and she learns in a lovely quiet friendship of the kind she hasn’t known before. Abdul stays there for years until the time comes to comfort Victoria as she lies dying. In 2010 his journals were discovered and became part of history.

Each cast member contributes appropriately but all of them are cardboard figures as they show us the narrow, formal world that surrounds the queen. The movie belongs to just two. Ali Fazal has the tough assignment of creating an Indian clerk whose deep sincerity touches Victoria so deeply that it changes her life. His performance is gentle and entirely credible. Judi Dench’s Victoria comes alive with this gift of genuine kindness from Abdul. Knowing the Dench talent as we all do, the portrait she paints of Victoria is no surprise, but the lovely quiet friendship between the two of them is a rare cinematic treat.

Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Film Title: Victoria and Abdul
Word Count: 497
Running Time: 1:52
Rating: PG-13
Date: 8 October 2017

 

Wind River

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Wind River

Of Wind River, the studio says “An FBI agent teams with a town’s veteran game tracker to investigate a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation.” That description is a one sentence understatement of a movie that may well be one of the best of this year.

Anyone who visits an active Indian reservation in the west or the main street of a town like Gallup, New Mexico, carries away a permanent brain imprint of what we did to the Indians by taking their land. Alcohol, sadness, and emptiness are at every turn.

Taylor Sheridan, who wrote, directed and set the story in Wyoming, shows the results of the past without sermonizing. For an hour or so he shows us the majestic beauty of snow covered mountains, woods, and flatland until we begin to wonder whether anyone could live there. Then, as he introduces the characters, we begin to understand the problems of weather and isolation on the people who do.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker for the wildlife department. We watch him roar through the wilderness at top speed on his snowmobile (to avoid becoming stuck) in search of predatory animals who kill the smaller ones who belong there. In the silence, we watch him follow patterns and tracks of both humans and animals on land he knows so well.

Suddenly Cory comes on the dead body of Natalie (Kelsey Abile), the 18 year old daughter of his Indian friend Ben (Gil Birmingham). He offers emotional support to Ben with understanding born of losing his own daughter to the culture of emptiness some years before.

The FBI is summoned and arrives in the unexpected form of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a new young agent from Las Vegas who is smart though inexperienced and looks to Cory for advice on how to find the killer. That’s it for the story.

At that point we are feeling quiet appreciation for director Taylor Sheridan’s subtle gift to us of the nature of physical isolation and the danger of the country. He then hits us with a prolonged explosion of violence. The beauty has turned to desolation; blood spreads on white snow; hatred and anger explode in an overwhelming violence of assault, rape, and battery. Thirteen people die. How did this brutality root itself in all this beauty? Suddenly, we understand this is why Sheridan spent the first hour showing us the erosive effect of isolation on people. Does isolation always breed violence?

My graphic description here is intended for people who avoid brutal violence in movies. So warned, it is rare to see a director’s vision delivered so powerfully despite one raw piece of overacting late in the film. Jeremy Renner is superb in his quietness; Elizabeth Olsen is excellent as the smart but inexperienced FBI agent; Gil Birmingham is powerful as the grieving father. You will best remember Taylor Sheridan who is a man unafraid of unleashing unvarnished historical truth.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Wind River
Word Count : 502
Running time : 1:47
Rating : R
Date : August 27, 2017