Mixed doubles

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in Victoria and Abdul. (image copyright BBC Films)

Pairing a film set in the 1890s with a film set in the early 1970s may seem like an odd objective for a blog, but Victoria and Abdul (4 stars on 0-5 scale) and Battle of the Sexes (3 ½ stars) actually have quite a bit in common. They both address themes of either racism (racialism, as it was called in the 19th century) or sexism, but even more important from a dramatic standpoint, they showcase fascinating and historically important relationships between a man and a woman.

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. (image copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

In Battle of the Sexes, that “relationship” was on full display for millions to see as Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a $100,000 tennis match. But with Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears, the public initially never knew about the special bond Queen Victoria shared during the last 15 years of her life with her faithful friend, servant and tutor, Abdul Karim, whom she referred to lovingly as her “munshi.” Others, including an unsympathetic Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), might have preferred the nickname “the brown John Brown.”

Both films are worth watching. Battle, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a real crowd pleaser but also has some subtle, touching moments, particularly when it slows down and mutes its poppy soundtrack to expose the personal vulnerabilities of both King (who is coming to terms with her sexuality) and Riggs (who is battling an addiction to gambling). Both Emma Stone and Steve Carell Stone are excellent. But Victoria and Abdul is the slightly better film and features a gripping turn by Judi Dench. Touching at times and surprisingly funny, it’s a memorable though quite different companion to John Madden’s 1997 film, Mrs. Brown.

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