Director: Stephen Frears
Genre: History/ Comedy/ Drama
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard.
Last year saw the release of Viceroy’s House, Gurinder Chada’s personal take on the partition of India told as a Downton Abbey/ Upstairs, Downstairs-style melodrama. Now, we have another film attempting to shed light on British-Indian relations, one that might cater to the same audience but which will at the same time probably and understandably stir more controversy (and it already has). Victoria & Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, Philomena), sees Judi Dench reprise the role of Queen Victoria 20 years after playing the character to much acclaim in Mrs. Brown, this time during the last years of the monarch’s long life, as it tells the story of her unlikely but true friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
Chosen for apparently no other reason than his height, the 24-year old Abdul is invited to travel to Britain and, in front of Queen Victoria herself, present a ceremonial coin to celebrate her 50 years of rule over the British Empire. Joining him in his journey is Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who, unlike Abdul, openly expresses his feelings of disgust towards the monarchy, and whose grumpiness often serves as an easy way to produce some laughs. But Abdul is in awe of Her Majesty, which makes him nervous about meeting her. As a result, he can’t help but break custom and make eye contact with her when the occasion arises, which anything but offends the Queen. When asked what she thought of him, she replies, boldly and unexpectedly, that she thought he was “very handsome”. Bored and tired of her life’s dull routine, Abdul seems to be the first thing in a long time that grabs her attention. And so, fascinated by him as much as he adores her, Abdul becomes not just a servant under her employ but also her very own “Munshi”, meaning a sort of spiritual teacher.
Dame Judi Dench’s great performance practically saves the film from what could have been a very unsatisfying failure. It is a wonder to watch as she acts out the Queen’s little mannerisms, and the way she portrays the character’s transition from a state of apathy to one of almost childlike excitement at the sight of Abdul is simply heartwarming. Ali Fazal is also charming, but that isn’t enough cover the fact that his character is almost dangerously flat. Which is surprising, considering it was only a few years ago that we learned more about the real-life Abdul when his diaries were discovered (prompting author Shrabani Basu to update the book upon which the film is based). The film identifies some of Queen Victoria’s deepest insecurities and emotions that drive her to pursue this controversial relationship, such as her grief and loneliness, while it never fully explains why her servant is there to blindly worship and literally kiss her feet at any cost. This dynamic makes the film’s otherwise endearing story appear as somewhat problematic and unflattering, especially since it is not interested in showing us the tragic historical and cultural implications of colonialism. It might have been better if the film had at least hinted at how power works to make someone so uncompromisingly devoted.
Still, it helps that what we see is actors playing their roles, as it makes it easier to overlook some of the film’s questionable underlying tendencies. I am pretty sure that these undertones were unintended, too; in fact, the film is self-aware enough as to not take itself too seriously – the opening credits confess that the film is based “mostly” on true events – which renders it enjoyable at least in a tongue-in-cheek way.
At its funniest, the film works best as a lighthearted comedy of manners and a fine parody of the aristocracy. At first, and quite predictably, this is achieved by showing the contrast between ordinary life and life in the royal household, but eventually, it becomes more interesting: since the bond between the two main characters is depicted as genuine and heartfelt, the considerable opposition they face by seemingly everyone else (including Edward VII or “Bertie”, played by Eddie Izzard) comes off as absurdly and humorously ridiculous and inhumane. The drama, on the other hand, is mostly engaging though it is at times too heavy-handed. The third act is particularly messy and over-the-top, and there are a lot of unnecessary plot points that prove tiresome and repetitive, though Dench remains respectable and fascinating through it all. As a BBC production, Victoria & Abdul couldn’t be more conventional, from its familiar soundtrack to its formulaic narrative, and Stephen Frears doesn’t stray from his typical style. But it’s pleasant enough if you can forgive its problems – and if not, you can simply marvel at the brilliance of Judi Dench.