Two recent films, Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall and Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, present vignettes from the lives of important historical figures. Marshall recounts a court case in which Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman), then an attorney for the NAACP, is forced into partnership with a Jewish lawyer in Connecticut (Josh Gad) to obtain justice for a black defendant (Sterling K. Brown). Victoria & Abdul tells of the close bond between the elderly Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
Marshall is set in 1940, more than a quarter-century before Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court justice. The storyplaces its hero in Bridgeport, Conn., where chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) has been accused of raping and trying to kill his wealthy white employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). The entire case stinks of racism, and Marshall specializes in tearing racially motivated prosecutions to shreds. However, the presiding judge (James Cromwell) forbids Marshall to utter one word in his court, and assigns the role of lead defense attorney to local lawyer Samuel Friedman (Gad).
It’s hard to say who is more galled by this—Marshall or Friedman, an insurance lawyer who has never been involved in a criminal case and furthermore is terrified of reprisals. Hitler is spreading his anti-Semitic poison across Europe. Friedman is all too aware that many Bridgeport residents are just fine with that, as well as with what is happening to Joseph Spell.
Marshall is the story of how Marshall and Friedman forge a working relationship, with Marshall feeding Friedman all the pertinent questions and legal angles. It is also the story of what really happened that night between Spell and Strubing—and what Marshall and Friedman must do when they discover that Spell hasn’t been entirely honest.tephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, present vignettes from the
Marshall works both as an inspiring story of racial justice and as an engrossing courtroom drama. Hudlin and screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff pace the story well; if the structure of the film is traditional, it’s still very effective. The performances are a great help. Boseman gives an intense, tightly focused performance as Marshall; we readily believe this man is destined for great things, and will outfox or steamroll anyone who tries to stop him. Gad is also very good as the shlubby Friedman, who grows as a lawyer and a man because of the Spell case. Hudson, Brown, and Cromwell more than hold up their ends of the story. Dan Stevens overdoes it a bit as villainous prosecutor Loren Willis, though--given the way his part is written--it’s hard to see how he could have avoided that.
Altogether, Marshall is as snappy and tightly constructed as a Billy Strayhorn tune. It is also, sadly, just as pertinent to our own day as to the 1940s. With the profusion of young black men being killed in the streets for no reason, we can only conclude that the work Thurgood Marshall started is very far from over.
Victoria & Abdul tells its own sad story of racism, ameliorated by the genuine affection that developed between the Empress of India and one of her Indian subjects. The screenplay by Lee Hall begins in 1887, at the start of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when Abdul—a clerk in a prison in Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal—is one of two men selected to travel to England to present the Queen with a mohul, a commemorative gold coin. Abdul is instructed, over and over again, not to make eye contact with Her Majesty during the presentation. But he does anyway, and a friendship is born.
The bond between Victoria and Abdul makes no one happy except them. Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), Abdul’s companion in presenting the mohul, hates both English weather and English people, and longs to return to India. Yet his consternation is nothing compared with that of the Queen’s family and courtiers, who see Abdul as an upstart and resent his sway over her.
Victoria is heedless to all of this, and delighted with her newly found servant. Embroidering his personal history, Abdul presents himself as a munshi,or teacher, and soon he is instructing the Queen in Urdu and in his own highly subjective opinions on English and Indian history. This gets him into trouble when Victoria recounts as truth his version of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Victoria & Abdul has many moments of charm and humor, and it is as opulent as anyone could wish, thanks to the photography of Danny Cohen, the production design of Alan MacDonald and the costumes of Consolata Boyle. Yet the film feels oddly static. Except for Dench and Fazal, all the actors are in reactive roles, and never seem fully fleshed. Adeel Akhtar does manage to make Mohammed a real and tragic character, coming to life much more than Eddie Izzard as the Prince of Wales, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, or the late Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby.
Even Fazal, charming and likable as he is, never quite grabs the screen the way Dench does; it’s a less commanding performance than that of Billy Connolly in Victoria & Abdul’s unofficial prequel, Mrs. Brown. At least some of it has to do with the somewhat recessive way the role of Abdul is written; this has led to charges of racial and ethnic condescension, in a movie that has the conscious intent of celebrating the international meeting of minds.
In any case, it should be obvious to everyone that the overriding reason for seeing Victoria & Abdul is Judi Dench, who turned 83 the day I wrote this review and is at the absolute top of her game in this film. It is marvelous to see how Dench plays Victoria’s transformation in this film, from the bored monarch stultified by court protocol at the beginning to a woman whose intellectual curiosity and appetite for life are rekindled by a fascinating stranger.
Dench has a speech toward the end of the film that, while almost certainly nothing Victoria would actually have said, is a magnificent apologia for her life. Dench’s performance of the speech is full of vigor and passion, to the point of realization that no other living actor—and I do mean none—could have done it as much justice as she.
Victoria & Abdul is not a great film, but it does contain a great performance, and it does assert the notion—all the more essential in our own time—that hands reaching across the water do not have to be holding weapons.