Victoria and Abdul

2017-09-29 07:13

What it's about:

The extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim, a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favour with the Queen herself. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.

What we thought:

Portrayals of British queens are as common in film as racial stereotypes, but Judi Dench has always had the Queen Victoria-role coined since her Oscar-nominated performance in Mrs Brown. In a historical sequel where the story is unrelated to the first, she reprises her role in another Queen Victoria-and-her-obstinate-favouritism-of-a-lowborn-servant film – Victoria and Abdul. It might at first feel a bit contrived – this colonial monarch befriending a lowly Muslim Indian – but after a while the sweetness feels genuine between Dench and Ali Fazal, and the growing jealousy of the rest of the household serves to remind us how insane racial prejudice really was.

Queen Victoria is nearing the end of her days, and spends them in absolute boredom. A young Indian clerk attends her jubilee as a servant and unintentionally catches her eye. She requests that he attends to her and they form a close bond, much to the dismay of her family and prime minister.

I never really knew much about the sombre queen of the latter part of the 19th century, but have always imagined her as a burly woman that didn’t stand for nonsense. Dench brought a more thoughtful portrayal of a woman reaching the end of her years, clinging on to the last vestiges of her power.

Based on historical accounts of their relationship, the film is, as many before, a romanticised version of the truth, yet you do not feel like you have to suspend your disbelief too much. Though I doubt the real Abdul Karim could have been nearly as beautiful as Fazal (the man’s smile will melt even Trump’s travel ban), you can believe in the tenderness that existed between the queen and her Munchi, and that makes the film a pleasure to watch.

Dench gives you exactly what you expect, and though it won’t get her the same Oscar love she received in her previous rendition, she solidifies her claim as THE Queen Victoria-actress. Her presence almost always fills up the whole screen, so you’d be hard-pressed to fault anything in her performance.

Fazal floundered a little from time to time trying to match her, exasperating his gestures a little too wildly, but in the end, he became an endearing character that held his own in the face of deep emotional performance wrought from history’s racial injustice. Historians gave the real Karim a bit more sinister agency in his influence over Indian policy, and in the film they only hinted at it, but I don’t see the story really suffering because of it. 

They also sprinkled in some anti-colonial sentiment through the darling performance of Adeel Akhtar, who plays Karim’s unwilling fellow Indian servant who just wants to go home and has a deep-seated resentment for British rule. He may be the comic relief, but when he is faced with an opportunity to better his situation, he excels in emotive drama. He may have been a small character, but he made a big contribution to the enjoyment of the film.

Victoria and Abdul is a slow-paced film with little in the way of dramatic twists and climaxes, but the quiet introspections and conversation between the two leads more than makes up for the lack of excitement in the plot. Although I do feel the Queen might have been too favourably portrayed (she was after all the monarch that presided over a bloody colonial empire), it remains a fascinating story of a white noble British woman giving a person of colour a place in her life that many thought almost revolting, and that thankfully no amount of resentful erasure by other royal family members could ever truly bury.

Read more on:    judi dench  |  eddie izzard  |  movies

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