Monday, November 6, 2017

Mrs. Brown vs. Victoria & Abdul: A Comparison


In 1997 the world was enchanted by Mrs. Brown, the story of Queen Victoria's relationship with her Highland servant, John Brown.  Twenty years later, the world was, well, if not enchanted at least treated to Victoria & Abdul, the story of Queen Victoria's relationship with her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, also known as The Munshi.  While technically Victoria & Abdul is not a straight sequel to Mrs. Brown, both star Judi Dench in the title role. 

Now, I don't compare sequels in that such things don't make sense.  How does one compare the original to the follow-up when they were meant to be part of the same story?  In this case, however, they were not meant to be the same story.  History, in a curious turn, gave the Empress of India a do-over: finding a servant from another culture a chance to find favor in her eyes.

What I find interesting about Mrs. Brown vs. Victoria & Abdul is the tone of each film.  Mrs. Brown is a straightforward drama.  It tells its story in a serious manner.  Don't misunderstand: Mrs. Brown isn't dour or morose.  It just is not meant for laughs.

Victoria & Abdul, on the other hand, is deliberately cutesy, aiming for a more light and humorous touch than Mrs. Brown.  Its aim is to be 'charming' and a confectionary diversion, while Mrs. Brown went with the more sober take on this curious 'love affair'.

John Brown:
I think part of that is based on the personalities, as presented in their films, of John Brown and Abdul Karim.  Brown, the blunt, no-nonsense Scottish Highlander, was a man of the world, one who liked to drink and not afraid of a fisticuff.  In Mrs. Brown, he even takes a nude swim with his brother Archie (though not with The Queen).  He takes 'liberties' with The Queen, but these 'liberties' are more in how he behaves towards her: his direct manner, his sometimes shocking address to Her Majesty as 'woman' make him certainly not her equal, but someone not afraid of speaking his mind.

Abdul Karim 'The Munshi'
Karim, who was 20 years old when Brown died, is another matter.  Victoria & Abdul presents him almost as an innocent, this wide-eyed naïve figure who is enchanted by everything.  He would never dream of fighting anyone.  On the contrary: Karim is a man of peace and love, eager only to please his beloved Empress of India.  His battles with the Court are almost accidental and unwitting.  While Brown would have no problem taking on anyone who threatened The Queen in some way, even the Prince of Wales, Karim would be puzzled as to why anyone would think him of all people a threat.

It's a curious thing, however, that both Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul merely hint that either Brown or Karim somehow took advantage of their positions of influence over our Monarch.  John Brown at one point tells the Queen's Private Secretary "don't think I can't persuade her" on a particular matter.  Karim never makes any objection to the idea that he, simple Indian servant, should be knighted.

On both occasions, the Court was scandalized by these two servants.  On both occasions, the staff threatened revolt if Brown or Karim were kept.  It is a curious thing that history should have repeated itself.

Again, Mrs. Brown treats the story seriously, while Victoria & Abdul treats the story like a comedy.  It isn't just the fact that Brown and Karim were different in their manner.  It's also that the situations they faced lent themselves to either a serious or comic response.  Brown was working to get Queen Victoria out of mourning, or at least to settle herself to grief.  Karim was working to get Queen Victoria a mango.

One would expect if the situations were reversed, Karim would have hugged the Queen and Brown would not even care what a mango was, let alone sent for one.

The tone of the films (serious for Mrs. Brown, light for Victoria & Abdul) and the portraits of John Brown and Abdul Karim (the former a serious man, the latter a naïve and sweet boy) make it appear to me that Victoria & Abdul isn't a real sequel to Mrs. Brown.  They just happen to have a similar story.

Finally, some quick comparisons between the two.


Judi Dench: Mrs. Brown
Judi Dench: Victoria & Abdul

It's strange to compare the same actress playing the same role two decades apart.  For my part, I think she was better in the serious Mrs. Brown, where she behaved like the imperious yet lonely woman behind the crown.  In Victoria & Abdul, she seemed to make the Queen more tottering and less majestic. It fit the comic tone of Victoria & Abdul, but I find it hard to think the Victoria of Mrs. Brown would belt out I'm Called Little Buttercup.  Yes, she sang a Highland song to Disraeli in Mrs. Brown, but there it looked sensible and realistic. In Victoria & Abdul, her breaking out into Gilbert & Sullivan looked a bit bonkers.


Geoffrey Palmer: Mrs. Brown
Tim Piggot-Smith: Victoria & Abdul

Perhaps because Victoria & Abdul was more a comedy, I think I favored the late Piggot-Smith's portrayal of Sir Henry than Palmer's more stern and serious version.  Piggot-Smith was more tottering and shocked than willfully hideous and unpleasant.  He still was a pretty snobbish and unpleasant person, but not as outright a power player than Palmer.  Truth be told, I hardly remember Palmer's take.


David Westhead: Mrs. Brown
Eddie Izzard: Victoria & Abdul

It's curious that Westhead, while good, had little to make him stand out as both an advisory and/or the Prince of Wales.  Part of it may have been the script, but part of it also, I think, is that Westhead was made to look more like Bertie's father, Prince Albert, than the rotund future Edward VII.  Izzard, however, more than looked the part.  He made the Prince of Wales someone well-used to his mother's eccentricities, one who knew how to bide his time and strike when he could.  He balanced the humor of things (the humiliation of this middle-aged man almost 60 having to share a toilet with his mother while 'that Indian' gets one to himself) with the menace of Bertie, who has no problem booting the Karim family out the moment his predecessor on the throne goes cold.


John Brown
Abdul Karim

For my part, if we based the types of people John Brown and Abdul Karim were based solely on Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul, I'd much more favor the Scottish Highlander over the Indian Muslim.  John Brown was respectful to the Monarch but was in no way worshipful of her.  He was curt, he was direct, he treated her like a person and not a personage.  Karim was a whole different version.  He was extremely worshipful: there is no way John Brown, no matter how much he held the Queen in high regard, would ever kiss her feet.  He'd find the whole idea of a royal foot worship madness. 

Karim was too much of an innocent, too eager to please.  Karim was presented as such, while simultaneously you got the odd feeling he also was using his influence over Victoria for his own gains.  This 'sweet boy' delighted in tableaus where the nobility bowed down to him, and no amount of naïve could cover the fact that they detested the idea of bowing to a servant, and an Indian one at that.

John Brown, for his part, would never have participated in these pantomimes, and while he may have thought himself better than all the fools of Court, he wouldn't have put himself in a situation that spoke of it so plainly.  He wouldn't have to: he'd just do it.


Mrs. Brown
Victoria & Abdul

As cute as Victoria & Abdul was, something about it never really sat well with me.  It almost seemed to romanticize the British Raj, as if to suggest that Indians were quite happy in being ruled over by a far-off monarch of another race, one whose courtiers believed themselves superior to other races.  Mrs. Brown took its historical story as one about two people: one in a position of power and one who wasn't afraid of that power.  Victoria & Abdul was almost a comedy of manners. 

I've nothing against cutesy.  I just don't think Victoria was cutesy.   

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