Victoria and Abdul is a film adaptation of the (mostly) true story of the unexpected and controversial friendship of between Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
For those of among us who downloaded history lessons to free up bandwidth for daily data usage a brief refresher:
Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom and Scotland from 1837 – and assumed the moniker Empress of India beginning in 1876 – until her death in 1901.
By the time of her reign, the UK had a constitutional monarchy. The position of “Queen” had little direct political power keeping her influence behind the scene and her role, national icon. She ruled for 63 years and during her reign, leaps and bounds were made advancing industry, science, art, political thought and the lands owing allegiance to the British empire expanded and that time become known as the Victorian Era.
Queen Victoria never set foot in India – uprisings and enormous bounties for her head abound in the region; funny how people aren’t keen on having an invading force lay claim to their land in the name of someone they don’t know – so her ambassadors and emissaries frequently sent items of interest back to England for the Queen. In 1887, a humble clerk named Abdul Karim traveled to England, from India, to present a medal to the Queen for her Golden Jubilee celebration.
And….on to the movie talk:
Victoria & Abdul smartly begins its tale in Agra, India providing tiny glimpses – that speak volumes for all their brevity – of Abdul’s life and the climate in India under British rule. Abdul spends his days entering names into a large book in a prison. He’s picked – for the most superficial of reasons – to be one of two representatives sent to England for what should be a short trip, but through the most bizarre and completely captivating turn of events turns into a fourteen-year residency as one of the Queen’s closest advisors and part of the royal household.
The script navigates this dense material by silently revealing Queen Victoria to be the very picture of a curmudgeonly and detached old woman going through the motions edging closer towards the end of life and Abdul a bright-eyed, young man open to adventure and capitalizing on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Their relationship begins with a meet-cute of well, royal proportions. Against a backdrop worthy of a few awards for costuming and design, Abdul’s arrival and subsequent encounter with Victoria unfold in an almost storybook fashion.
As the Queen slowly comes to life, glimpses of a younger more adventurous and witty Victoria emerges as she shakes off her waking sleep and as her relationship with Abdul evolves and deepens we learn more about his past and her isolation. His awe and almost child-like (which at times feels a touch overdone given the time and his age) air add an element of lightness to what could otherwise be dry, and dreary facts. He plays to the Queen’s obvious fascination with India to not only hold her attention but to secure himself a place in her inner circle.
The royal household is completely up in arms at this turn of events. This part of the movie is interesting mostly because it exposes a side of royal life rarely discussed. The Queen may rest on the throne, but she’s surrounded by people convinced that she’s no more than a figurehead to be handled and maneuvered as they see fit. The back-biting and underhanded plotting kicks up the tension and reveals a toxic arrogance that tells its own story about life under Britsh rule even within the royal household – in all its forms. The final showdown between Queen and staff is perfect in its blunt-edged tone and demonstration of the tenacious and rebellious nature that is a hallmark of Victoria’s reign.
The Queen’s son, and impatient heir, Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) has no intention of quietly accepting his mother’s new confidant and watching the lengths he went to in order to try to displace him made me actively hate a man intellectually I know has been dead for years upon years. Eddie Izzard’s Bertie is blustering, brittle, and utterly brilliant because by the end of the movie I wanted to demand he be forced to abdicate all rights to the throne…and then punch him in his pompous face.
On the whole, Victor and Abdul does a superb job of blending facts and this uncovered relationship that’s been deliberately hidden for years to build a visually stunning and engaging film. Dench’s reprisal as Queen Victoria in the latter part of her life is riveting and delightful. It gives the audience a glimpse at the attitude and will that held the throne longer than any before her and simultaneously revealed her weaknesses and blind spots.
If the movie has any weaknesses, its the narrow focus on Abdul. It’s obvious from what we do not know that Abdul was a complicated man but his on-screen portrayal, while magnetic and fully formed felt limited. Ali Fazal, brought Abdul to life with an exuberance that translated well and was a joy to watch but we are never really given the opportunity to ever know what he’s thinking. There are moments where it’s more than obvious that something is going on behind his smoldering eyes and that a keen intelligence is at work, but neither the script no Frear’s direction brings that out in any part of the story. It makes it difficult to feel as though you ever gain a real sense of this man was who became the Queen’s most trusted teacher and friend right up until the last moments of her life.
This entire story is situated against the known history of the hostile and frequently violently unstable environment in India due to the people’s subjugation by the culturally tone-deaf British. It’s a subtle subplot but the factual truth (read: unflattering) view of the British and its treatment of its colony inhabitants lives in Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) the second man sent (very much against his will) with Abdul to take the medal to the Queen.
Mohammed is bitter, vocal, and in no way enamored with the British or the Queen. He watches the court and Abdul’s servile attitude with a visibly curled lip and a creeping dismay as it becomes more and more obvious that he’s never going to get back home. On the surface, Mohammed serves as a comedic figure, his commentary on British food choices, eating habits, and general attitude are conveyed with an air of bemused disdain that’s easy to laugh off and move on to the more obvious – and lighter – story of the developing relationship between Victoria and Abdul. But on a deeper level, it exposes the adversarial and malignant relationship between an Empire and its unwilling subjects.
His neglect and ultimate end stand as a sobering testament to life outside the bubble of the Queen’s favor and is a mirror that more accurately reflects Victoria’s – and England’s – attitude towards those suffering beyond the glare of her blindingly privileged life but under her heel.
Victoria and Abdul is a surprisingly moving story told with warmth, humor and a biting wit that sheds light on a relationship lost for over a century and carving a place in recognized history for an intriguing man more than deserving of being known for who he really was.
Grade: A –