VICTORIA & ABDUL
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements and language)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 9/22/17 (limited); 9/29/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 28, 2017
The most enlightened person in the palace is a doddering, old monarch—a woman who must be rolled out of bed every morning, who eats every course of a state dinner as if it will be her last meal, who falls asleep as the people around her eat, whose doctor worries that, because of her diet, she isn't having enough "movements." Despite all of this, the Queen of the United Kingdom was, in her time, the longest-reigning monarch in history. Her will was at least as relatively strong as her constitution, and in Victoria & Abdul, she uses that stubbornness for a little good—as little good as it does the rest of the people in her immediate sphere.
The story, "mostly" based on a true one, is of Queen Victoria's late-life friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian clerk who became the Queen's trusted counselor in matters both spiritual and relating to Indian culture. This was an outrage within the court, since Karim arrived in England as a servant.
It was a greater outrage, perhaps, because he was Muslim, and as the head of the Church of England, it would have been a religious scandal if the public knew the Queen was learning to speak Urdu, about the Quran, and a theology that certain people still have little interest in exploring with an open mind. There were bigots and, as Victoria calls the members of her court in the film, "racialists" then, too, but the entire empire over which Victoria ruled was founded on bigoted and racialist attitudes. The film, which condenses the decades-long relationship between Victoria and Karim to a shorter but unknown number of years, suggests that some of those attitudes could have changed in terms of policy, if only the Queen possessed a bit more time and more power.
It's a pleasant sentiment—a bit naïve, as well, since the film portrays Victoria as someone who treats Abdul as a curiosity to have near her in her later, less productive years. Victoria is played by Judi Dench here, with the alternating sternness and warmth that the actress effortlessly can conjure and embody (Some may recall that she played Victoria about two decades ago in the great Mrs. Brown, which was about another scandalous friendship with a servant, and although there is no direct connection between the two films, they still would make a fine double feature). Abdul is played by Ali Fazal as a man whose complete dedication to the Empress of India is a bit curious.
The film presents the character as a man defined by his devotion to a ruler who would never step foot in India. With Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), another Indian Muslim who's far less enthralled by the Queen and her empire ("Oppressor" is his preferred term for her), Abdul arrives to present the monarch with a ceremonial coin. Victoria notes that he is "handsome," and soon enough, he is serving her a jelly dessert—before dropping to his hands and knees to kiss her feet.
It's the first of many scandals. For her part, Victoria is intrigued and flattered by the display, especially when she's surrounded by upstarts and gossipers, whom she suspects—perhaps correctly—are simply waiting for her to die. Chief among them is her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales, who is convinced that Abdul is simply his using the Queen for his own personal gain. "How does that make him any different than the rest of you," Victoria responds to such allegations.
The screenplay, written by Lee Hall and based on the book by Shrabani Basu, is about half character study and half comedy of manners. It must be that way, because, while the film sympathizes with both of these characters, it does so in very different ways.
It understands Victoria enough. She's a woman who just happens to be a queen and whose life is coming to an end, trapped within the walls of a palace where things have become routine, while realizing with complete clarity how much she has lost over the course of her life—a husband, her other servant friend (whom she briefly mentions on a trip to Scotland), and, as they prepare to take over after she is gone, her family. She is, by most contemporary estimations, the most powerful woman in the world, but here, she is isolated, alone, and devoid of anything resembling human connections.
Abdul, then—with his devotion, gratitude, and willingness to talk to her with some freedom—is a perfect companion for her. That's how Hall's screenplay presents the character for the most part. The rest of his portrayal is in the comedy resulting from the reactions of the court—from Victoria's servants to her advisors—to Abdul's presence. Having left his wife behind in India, the Queen insists that he return to India, so that he may bring her back with him (The palace watches with nosiness and minor horror as the wife, followed by her mother, emerges from a carriage—each of the women dressed in a burka). The reactions of the court become more sinister after Victoria names Abdul her personal spiritual advisor and announces that she intends to give him a knighthood.
There is a distinct imbalance here between the depictions of the two, central characters. It matters, because the film leaves Abdul without much a character unto himself, but it also doesn't matter too much, since the film is aware that, in this place and in this time, Abdul would not be able to be a man unto himself. The point is to challenge that notion, and Victoria & Abdul does so by portraying this evolving relationship with tenderness and compassion.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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