Movie reviews: Victoria and Abdul, The Villainess, The Jungle Bunch
- Victoria and Abdul (G, 106mins) ★★
- The Villainess (No cert, IFI, 129mins) ★★★★
- The Jungle Bunch (G, 97mins) ★★
When I was young, one tended to imagine Queen Victoria as the frumpy grump ossified in gloomy statues. But in recent times there's been a rush to humanise her. In films like The Young Victoria (2009) and the lush TV drama Victoria, we've watched a youthful, giddy monarch fall passionately for her dashing Saxon prince, Albert.
She's wept and schemed, resented her rigid role and even had sex. It all began with Mrs Brown (1997), John Madden's charming and possibly fanciful account of the middle-aged and widowed queen's intimate relationship with a Scottish servant. This film is closely related to that and deals with a similar incident near the end of Victoria's life.
In 1887, a young Muslim prison guard from Uttar Pradesh was chosen to journey to England to present Queen Victoria with a ceremonial carpet. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and his travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are overawed by their journey from Bombay to London, and flabbergasted by the splendour of Windsor Castle.
They're met by a wall of bemusement and contempt, and royal flunkies warn them on no account to meet the royal gaze when they make their presentation.
But Abdul cannot help staring, and when the old queen (Judi Dench) notices him, she requests he wait on her the following day. And what was meant to be a short trip turns into a lengthy stay as Victoria warms to the young man and asks him to teach her Urdu.
Her jockeying entourage are not amused and do everything in their power to discredit Abdul. They are led by the scheming courtier Sir Henry Ponsonby (played by the late Tim Pigott-Smith) and Victoria's dissolute son Bertie (Eddie Izzard). But the queen digs her heels in and the scene is set for a palace battle.
Directed by Stephen Frears, Victoria And Abdul offers a shamelessly saccharine version of British imperial history and seems to imply that the Raj was a bumbling, genial regime rather than a rapacious foreign occupation. The blandly smiling character of Abdul never achieves three dimensions and Izzard plays Bertie as such a conniving, liverish idiot that one wonders how he ever became such a popular king.
Judi Dench, of course, is splendid, bypassing some very ordinary screen-writing to give us a compelling vision of a weary monarch yearning to live a little before the end.
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Judged as a drama, The Villainess is no great shakes. Its storyline about a fearsome criminal assassin who is enlisted as a sleeper agent by government spies is dizzy and scarcely credible.
But as a pure action film, it is hard to fault, and a shocking opening sequence in which Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) works her way through at least 100 criminals using guns, knives and her fists is just the beginning of a blood-soaked rollercoaster ride.
In flashbacks (there are lots of flashbacks), we discover that Sook-hee was groomed as a killer by a smooth-talking hoodlum after her father was murdered in front of her. She now has a kid of her own and will do anything to protect the child: surrounded on all sides by enemies, she just keeps on killing.
Blood flies and bones crack with merry gusto in The Villainess, which is strong stuff and not for the squeamish. But the action scenes, particularly a climactic fight on a speeding bus, are breathtaking.
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And finally, a word about The Jungle Bunch, a mainly French animation set on a tropical island beset by a meddlesome Koala Bear. Igor, a nihilist, wants to burn the forest down, and only a gang of heroes led by Maurice, a penguin who thinks he's a tiger (don't ask), can stop him.
Shabbily animated and ineptly translated from French, The Jungle Bunch is full of bad jokes and awkward pauses. And while younger viewers may be moderately amused, this will not go down in the annals of great cartoons.