No matter how many generations pass, there is a romance among citizens of the British Isles—and their even more royal-obsessed American cousins—for the Victorian era and the fleeting decade after it. It was the pinnacle of the British Empire’s reach, and the Western world rotated for nearly a century around the fashions of a queen they named their age after. Or as Downton Abbey aficionados are seduced into believing about the pre-World War I era, “the good old days.”
Victoria and Abdul, the new film from Stephen Frears, is obviously keen to tap into that nostalgia for a lost glory by casting Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria herself, thus allowing the beloved actress to play the second of English history’s larger than life queens (and hey, she won an Oscar last time for tackling Elizabeth). Luckily though, Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall are also eager to infuse a bit of wry humor about the whole affair into what could have otherwise been a stately period piece.
While nowhere near as subversive and clever as Frears’ previous movie about royals in peril (The Queen with Helen Mirren), Victoria and Abdul is constantly prepared to defuse much of its fawning over royalty. Indeed, the core story of an elderly Queen of England striking up an unlikely friendship with a much younger Indian subject is unto itself a fairly remarkable (and mostly true) deconstruction of costumed movies’ regular deification of crowns and the regal heads that wear them. Nevertheless, Victoria and Abdul wants to have its profiterole and eat it too, by digging into a rather curious relationship while ignoring the insidious colonialism that informed it. This leaves the film to solely rely on its light touch and courtly charms. Ultimately coming to resemble a feature-length arched eyebrow, this might also be considered the sweet spot when it comes to the driest of bemusements.
Victoria and Abdul is adapted from Shrabani Basu’s nonfiction book of the same name. Released in 2011, it revealed the personal documents of Abdul Karim, the previously unknown Muslim Indian who befriended Victoria in her later years, beginning during the height of her Golden Jubilee.
As relayed in the film, Abdul (Ali Fazal) was selected for the glorified role of waiter by the British Empire due to his height. He, as well as the much shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are tasked with traveling to London for the queen’s jubilee. As she is technically Empress of India, the two must deliver a gold medal that represents India’s undying loyalty. But when they get there, they’ll find that our fair Victoria is so miserable in her later years that she couldn’t care less about medals, ceremonies, the courtiers around her vying for position, or most especially her despised son Prince “Bertie” (Eddie Izzard). In fact, the only thing that makes her look up from her French pastries during a lavish feast is that tall, handsome Indian chap who has broken protocol to make eye contact with her.
And thus is the beginning of an intriguing friendship. At first the somewhat smitten older woman requests Abdul to be one of her servants, yet when she learns he will actually speak to her like a human being instead of an admittedly sizable landmark, she quickly makes him her Munshi (instructor), requesting he teach her Hindu—she’s initially oblivious to the fact that that he’s a Muslim and is thus teaching her the Persian version of the language, Urdu, but he also soon enough is instructing her in the Quran as well. A strange but mostly sweet and life-affirming friendship for the monarch, it sends the entire Buckingham Palace staff and court into a frenzy of hatred and xenophobia, culminating in Bertie trying to lead a mini-revolt against his mother and her brown-skinned friend.
Granted, this is a battle of wills between a limp-wristed 53-year-old man and Judi Dench, but it will nevertheless be the closest the film comes to genuine conflict.
At its best, Victoria and Abdul makes for an excellent vehicle for Dench. Even in her later age, or maybe because of it, the actress has only become more fearsome in her razor-tongued putdowns of her inferiors. And since she plays a queen here, everyone can be treated as her inferior. Frears is dutifully able to give her plenty of close-ups as the film laments Victoria’s loneliness as the still grieving widow. Also when her servants or children get particularly snippy, she can bring down the gravitas that crushed two James Bonds with ease.
However, the crocodile tears for the monarch are often a concession to an overly earnest genre, and not entirely the film’s greatest strength. Moments of Abdul and Mohammed simply staring at the absurdity of the pomp and circumstance orbiting the English monarchy (and its faithful audience) is the fresh air that allows the movie to be slyly self-aware of the actual low stakes of this high political office. And Fazal is commendable at playing his Indian character with both a sense of humor and kindness that bounces well off of Dench.
However, the film more than misses a beat in actually fully unpacking the implications of Victoria and Abdul’s companionship. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear what the British court thinks of this fast-rising Indian, as well as the variously shifting opinions Victoria will have about him at any given moment, but Abdul himself is presented too simply as the good-natured foreigner. As the movie briefly addresses in the third act, Muslim Indians technically did lead a revolt against the British Empire within several years of Abdul’s journey, and for an understandable reason too: they didn’t want to be colonized by England. Yet Abdul’s opinion on the matter is glossed over in favor of his unwavering admiration for the British monarch.
Is it merely a meeting of the mind and soul between the two, or is Abdul currying favor to achieve his own advancement, as well as that of India’s? The latter must be undeniable given how high he rises, and how much sway he places on a monarch who has and never will step foot in his native land. Yet the actual political motivations are as muted and overlooked as the movie’s desire to ignore the relationship between colony and empire, and the more challenging flaws of Victoria’s supposed golden age.
The movie is content to mostly get lost in that aurelian hue, from the jubilee to the end. Abdul admires Victoria, like the audience, because she is the queen, and an appealingly fierce one at that. With no desire to explore the political dynamics further, it prevents the film from achieving anything more than a slight comedy of manners. But how mannered they look in those impeccable costumes and with the occasional self-effacing wink. It’s charming, but never fully enthralling.
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