In Theaters

Friendships are one of the most precious, enjoyable and special elements of life. They’re especially prized when they take on magical qualities, those that involve acquaintances who are seemingly unlikely, perhaps even mismatched. So it was when a humble Indian servant met a powerful but lonely, aging monarch trapped by the rigidity and responsibility of her title, a fable-like tale depicted in the new biographical offering, “Victoria and Abdul” (web site, trailer).

When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a clerk at a local prison in Agra, India, is unexpectedly called upon to present a ceremonial coin to long-serving Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench), he’s both intimidated and overwhelmed at the prospect. Having been chosen largely because he meets the physical requirements dictated by royal protocol, he’s plucked out of his civil servant job and whisked off to London with his new friend and cohort, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), for what is supposed to be a short trip and an even shorter ceremony.

In preparation for his task, Abdul is rigorously schooled in what’s expected of him, most notably what he should and should not do. In particular, he’s repeatedly advised never to make eye contact with Her Majesty. However, when the two meet – and the unthinkable serendipitous gaze transpires – a connection is made, one that blossoms into a solid bond of familiarity and, eventually, friendship.

Long-reigning monarch Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench, left) strikes up an unlikely friendship with an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, right), in director Stephen Frears’s delightful new historical release, “Victoria and Abdul.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy of Focus Features.

As the relationship between Abdul and Victoria unfolds, she’s captivated by his wisdom and charm. He teaches her things about life and culture in his homeland that she never knew – quite an irony given that, in addition to being Queen, she also bears the title of Empress of India, a land she rules but has never visited. In short order, Abdul begins teaching Victoria about the Koran and the linguistics of Urdu, among other subjects, all of which fascinate her. And, as a consequence, Abdul quickly becomes one of the Queen’s most trusted confidantes.

Victoria’s acquaintance with Abdul involves more than just being a student of subcontinent culture. He also provides good company, something she craves, given the demands of her title, the incessant obsequious posturing of her family and staff, and her profound loneliness. Having outlived the two great loves of her life, as well as many others who were special to her, she feels alone, and Abdul fills a huge void in her day-to-day existence.

However, despite Victoria’s comfort with her new friend, others don’t share her sentiments, most notably her eldest son and heir apparent, Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), and members of the royal household, including chief of staff Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), primary physician Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins), and house matrons Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) and Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). All of them look down upon the “unseemly” commoner, convinced that he’s gaining too much influence with Her Majesty. They fear for their standing with the Queen, but they also express concern that a foreigner – and a Muslim one at that – may be somehow trying to co-opt the leader of the British Empire and the Church of England. They’re convinced that something must be done – before it’s too late. However, they also underestimate the power of their adversary – and I’m not talking about Abdul.

Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), heir apparent to the English throne, seethes over the profound friendship between his mother the queen and a commoner in the entertaining new comedy-drama, “Victoria and Abdul.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy of Focus Features.

In spite of the pressures placed upon them, the Queen and her youthful mentor evolved what many would see as an enviable friendship. It had an undeniable harmony and intimacy associated with it, qualities that successfully helped it withstand all attempts at trying to undermine it. Even during times when the bond was threatened – sometimes with seemingly credible evidence worthy of raising legitimate suspicion – the connection managed to endure. Now that’s the test of a real relationship and what it truly means to call someone “friend.”

Though somewhat slight in substance and likely tinged with more than a little present-day political correctness, “Victoria and Abdul” nevertheless serves up an eminently entertaining story about the forging of a bond between unlikely companions. Director Stephen Frears’s breezy, endearing tale features top-shelf production values and gorgeous cinematography, capped off by delightful portrayals by Dench and Fazal in the title roles. It makes for a package that’s sweet, funny and thoroughly enjoyable, even if a bit suspect historically speaking.

All too often we take friendships for granted, not fully appreciating what they mean to us and how truly valuable they really are. That’s sad, especially when we see those who desperately reach out to forge such connections when they’re absent. Fortunately, we have the example of this improbable duo to help show us the way. Should we follow their lead, we just might find ourselves sufficiently amused.

A complete review will be available in the near future by clicking here.

A colorful pudding served up by footman Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, center) brings joy to aging monarch Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench, left) and consternation to royal head of household Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggott-Smith, right) in “Victoria and Abdul.” Photo by Peter Mountain, courtesy of Focus Features.


Unfortunately, due to unforeseen technical difficulties, last week’s Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio with host Frankie Picasso had to be postponed. It will be rescheduled for a future date, so stay tuned for details about our next edition of lively movie talk!

Big Things Are Almost Here! 

I’m thrilled to announce that the long-awaited release of my new book, Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies (ISBN 978-1976207501), is almost here! This exciting new title will be available in print and ebook formats from all major online book retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books and the iTunes Store, among others.

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment.

And, in support of this new book launch, I’m also pleased to announce the even longer-awaited release of my redesigned web site, This gorgeous new web site, designed by Bear Creek Apps & Media, is a big step up from its predecessor, featuring a new home for my Blog Page, as well as a host of other features, including access to some wonderful free materials. Details to follow when the site goes live!

The Best of Movies with Meaning – “I Smile Back”

Having it all should be enough for happiness and contentment, right? But what if it’s not? What if it masks an underlying emptiness driven by inexplicable feelings of unrelenting sadness, past regrets and compulsive behaviors aimed at paving over that pain? That’s the struggle faced by an upscale housewife whose life is slipping away from her in the heartbreaking drama, “I Smile Back” (web site, trailer), available on DVD and video on demand.

Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman), a married mother of two, would appear to live a charmed life. Her wealthy husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), provides well for his family, and her kids are an absolute joy. So why is mom so unhappy? That’s what she needs to find out. In getting there, though, she routinely binges on alcohol, prescription drugs and illicit substances and unabashedly has affairs with other men, including one of her husband’s best friends (Thomas Sadoski). She also abandons medications designed to treat her bipolar disorder, contending they’re making her fat. However, such reckless behavior eventually catches up with Laney, which lands her in rehab to get her life back together.

Through the course of her treatment and subsequent release, Laney toils to become the person she’s expected to be. But, no matter how much she attempts to conquer her demons and avoid the temptations always around her, she has difficulty staying clean, especially when directly confronting her past, such as in a strained encounter with the father (Chris Sarandon) who abandoned her as a child. And the further Laney immerses herself in these circumstances, she must come to terms with what it means to hold it together – or to lose one’s mind.

Lost and lonely housewife Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) seeks to hold her life together in “I Smile Back.” Photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

While sometimes painful to watch, “I Smile Back” is nevertheless compelling for Silverman’s breakthrough dramatic performance, which deservedly earned her a best actress nomination in the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards competition. Regrettably, some elements of the narrative don’t feel fully fleshed out, but then maybe that’s the point: Sliding over the edge isn’t something we may always understand or for which we can pinpoint a definitive cause. Still, despite these shortcomings, the film is a tremendous showcase for an actress who has a lot more in the tank than she’s typically been given credit for.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.