Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Victoria and Abdul (Focus Features, 2017) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writers: Lee Hall (s/p), Shrabani Basu (book). Stars: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla & Kemaal Deen-Ellis. Color, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

In this film “Based on real-life events (mostly),” it’s 1887 and England has ruled India for 29 years. Twenty-six years ago her beloved Prince Albert died of typhoid fever and Queen Victoria dresses in black ever since.

Abdul Karim (Fazal), a clerk in Agra, India, works keeping a ledger in a prison when he learns that the Queen of England, the Empress of India, has expressed her delight with the beautiful rugs sent to her for her jubilee. He is rightfully proud because he chose the designs. 

Ambassadors from India and England are seeking two tall Indian men to travel to England to offer their thanks and a rare coin. Abdul is tall and good-looking. He is chosen. His countryman, Mohammed (Akhtar) however, is not. The second tall representative fell ill and Mohammed had to take his place.

England is cold compared to India and Mohammed wants to go home from the beginning. Abdul is fascinated and honored by the opportunity. The two are hurriedly briefed on the rules regarding making a presentation to the Queen and are specifically warned not to make eye-contact with her. But while backing out of the dining hall, Abdul’s eyes and Victoria’s (Dench) meet and he smiles.

Victoria immediately makes the two her personal footmen and soon Abdul is assisting her by blotting the ink on her official correspondence. Their conversations lead to Victoria’s interests in India and the next thing her staff hears is Abdul teaching her Urdu. One of the words she learns from Abdul is “Munshi” (teacher) and she designates him her official Munshi and a part of the royal staff. The rest of her staff is horrified. The racism in England at the time is clearly evident in this film even though no disparaging words are used in reference to the two visitors. The worst they are called is “Hindus” while both of them are Muslim.

In the course of her schooling, Victoria becomes attached to Abdul and takes him to outdoor dining at Balmoral Castle in Scotland and to an evening of opera singing by Mr. Puccini (Callow) in Florence, Italy, where Abdul suggests Her Majesty sing a song. The Prince of Wales (Izzard) is mortified when he accompanies her on the piano to Gilbert and Sullivan. She forgets the words halfway through and the whole company break into a somewhat embarrassed applause.

What was meant to be a couple of days turns into a 14-year stay. Victoria is taken aback when he reveals that he’s married and insists he return to India and bring his wife (Ojla) back. He does and brings his mother-in-law as well, with both women swathed from head to toe in black burkas. More culture shock for the royal staff.

Though her advisers constantly counsel against having someone as “low-born” as Abdul in close company, Victoria attempts to solve that problem by announcing that she intends to knight Abdul. The entire staff threatens to quit.

Though Abdul Karim was an actual acquaintance of Queen Victoria, obviously much of the story is embellishment. He did become her Munshi and taught her much about India and he did stay 14 years until she died and Edward VII succeeded her. Abdul and his family returned to India, which as the final credits explain, “…didn’t gain independence until 1947.”

Victoria and Abdul is an excellent film. It has high drama, comedy, controversy, pathos (bring a tissue box), and superb acting, most notably by the ineffable Dame Judi Dench, who is reprising her role from the previous Mrs. Brown (1997)Both she and Ali Fazal deserve Oscar nominations for their incredible acting talents. I was charmed by this window into nineteenth century England as well as alarmed by the overt racism. The tangible affection for each other between Victoria and Abdul was obvious right to the end of the movie as Abdul visits the bronze statue of the Queen in Agra, placed there by Edward VII in 1905 and removed (of course) in 1947. I highly recommend this film to history buffs as well as romantics.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

8 West 58th Street, New York

Across 58th Street from the Plaza Hotel and next door to the Paris Theater, there’s an unassuming glass entrance to Beautique hidden, for the most part, by ticket lines for the theater. Entrants are led underground via a glitzy mirrored stairway to a set of rooms with crystal chandeliers, dim lighting and smoke-gray velvet seating.

I could smell dishwashers from my table by the door to the kitchen and wondered where I could relocate, but the restaurant was set up for a party of 14 using the remaining single tables. What were left were occupied. Normally, a seat near the kitchen is “Siberia” (where you sit if you want to be ignored) but my server, Luka, made an exception to that rule. Noticing my use of a flashlight to read the menu (small type, low light), he helped with cocktail selection while offering dinner recommendations.

In the absence of Beefeater’s gin I ordered a Tanqueray 10 martini and Luka ensured it was perfect. The other specialty cocktails seemed to be a bit too sweet. The wine list was pricey, but I did find an appropriate accompaniment to my meal in the 2015 Terlato Pinot Grigio “Friuli.” The red wines listed were all too powerful (and expensive) for what I was ordering. This pinot grigio was perfect, with a light golden color, an assertive nose and fresh, crisp, dry taste.

Looking for the unique I started with the duck tacos, served in a white ceramic canoe and bathed in a sesame barbecue sauce, with avocado in wonton shells and topped with shredded carrots. The barbecue sauce reminded me of a cook-out in Kentucky, a sweet, only slightly spicy flavor.

I then selected the kale Caesar salad. It was a nice mound of fresh, crisp, dark green kale with crunchy croutons and shredded parmesan cheese. And…wonder of wonders! It did not need additional garlic in the dressing.

My main course was one of Luka’s choices: The Mahi Mahi on vegetable risotto was much better than I could imagine. The meaty but flaky fish was moist and delicious and the risotto was that sticky, gooey consistency with a medley of diced vegetables mixed in, including carrots, green peppers, yellow squash, lima beans and mushrooms. The sauce was more of an orange color than the usual white resulting from the tomatoes in it.

I think Luka was impressed with my dining style, because when I ordered the Pineapple upside down cake for dessert and finished it, he insisted on treating me to the Molten Chocolate cake right after it. It was excellent as well and I was impressed with the caramelized popcorn garnish. 

I finished with a Double espresso and an after-dinner drink. This time it was a lovely glass of Balvenie 12-year-old Scotch Whisky.

Five years ago Beautique won Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards. I told Luka it was well deserved and that the next time I come to Beautique, it will be with friends.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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