Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a pair of movies that are – shall we say – exceedingly British.
Paddington (2014) – Despite my reservations that the titular bear was neither as cute as the Peggy Fortnum illustrations nor voiced by Colin Firth, I found myself captivated by the shameless whimsy and defiant British-ness of Paddington. In the case of the former, the bear looks much better in motion than he does in still photos, charmingly expressive; on the matter of the latter, Ben Whishaw is a fine Paddington, imbuing this unique bear with a roguish innocence that never misses a giggle when he pulls a marmalade sandwich from under his hat. There is something striking about the way writer/director Paul King (no relation; himself helming his first movie, a remarkable moment) manages to capture the madcap logic of a children’s story, in which a renegade shower massage can flood a bathroom while a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, between proud mouthfuls of scenery) plots to stuff and mount a living creature for a surprisingly well-developed and narratively integrated reason. I was also impressed at how artfully developed many of the film’s gags proved to be; for instance, a mishap with a handheld vacuum cleaner establishes the strength of the device for a pivotal and deft setpiece late in the film. For a character as prominent and marketable as Paddington Bear, it would have been exceptionally easy to make a lazy film that cashes in on the character’s adorable reputation, but it was quite apparent that everyone involved on Paddington cared deeply about the character and his legacy, and it strikes me that they have done right by him.
Victoria and Abdul (2017) – Here’s a film that offers Judi Dench the chance to be alternatingly heartwarming and cantankerous for two hours while breathing life into one of Britain’s most prominent figures (returning to a role, incidentally, for which she was nominated for an Oscar in Mrs. Brown). If that’s not a recipe for a good time at a film, I haven’t found one, because Judi Dench is riveting in this “mostly” true story about Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian subject, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who becomes a teacher (“munshi”) and a confidante in the regent’s final years. Victoria and Abdul is funnier but no less delightful than I anticipated, taking a wry postcolonial approach to the British Empire, acknowledging its dehumanizing aspects in a sobering scene with Abdul’s friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) but also highlighting Victoria’s efforts to learn more about her subjects, even if her naiveté is somewhat charming (“This mango is off,” she repeats in one notable scene). The cast is rounded out by Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, and Eddie Izzard, all of whom play their xenophobia rather broadly in a quintessentially British tongue-in-cheek interrogation of prejudice; it’s all Izzard can do not to twirl his mustache as Victoria’s eldest son, horrified that a lowborn subject has his mother’s ear in a way he never has. The film is irrevocably and undeniably Dench’s, though, equally enthralling while asleep at tea or while insisting that her faculties have never been sharper, in a single-take monologue that lays bare in equal measure her insecurities and accomplishments. It’s a powerhouse moment in a potent performance, a real shame that she was snubbed at last year’s Oscars.
That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!