Victoria & Abdul

Posted: September 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

Victoria and Abdul

The James Bond reboot took a lot of people by surprise.

The year is 1887, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, and as part of the celebrations two Indian servants, Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) and chosen to travel to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial gold coin. It’s only supposed to be a brief trip, but after Abdul catches the eye of Victoria (Dench) he and Mohammed find themselves drawn into the royal household.

As time passes the Queen becomes more and more enamoured of Abdul, and as his star rises, so too does the ire of the members of the Royal household, and especially of Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Izzard) and plans are drawn up to turn the Queen against Abdul and send the upstart Indian back home.

 

Victoria and Abdul has come in for some stick, and whilst I can see where much of it is coming from, I think some of it is unfair. The film isn’t perfect, but it isn’t quite as lightweight as some critics have suggested.

For a long time the presence of Abdul Karim, a Muslim at the side of Queen Victoria, was a story that few people knew about, so vehemently had his presence been excised from history, and part of the film’s problem is that the story almost seems to fantastical to be true, which is a shame given much of what we see here is presented quite accurately. The producers don’t help matters by claiming it’s ‘mostly’ inspired by true events.

There’s a nice symmetry to Dench playing Victoria once more opposite a man who provided companionship to Victoria after the loss of Albert. In 1997 this was in Mrs Brown opposite Billy Connolly as John Brown but now the object of her affection is amiable Bollywood star Fazal.

The cast are uniformly good, but really it’s Dench’s film, as she plays a woman who is incredibly powerful, yet seems a prisoner of that power, an old woman who knows she is nearing the end of her life, and for whom every day is a mundane struggle, until she spots the handsome young Indian and a spark of life is reignited within her. It’s a great performance by a great actress.

As Abdul, Fazal is given less to work with beyond wide-eyed devotion, and whilst his naiveite is engaging to start with it grates after a while as he never quite seems to wise up to how he’s being perceived by those around him.

Still it’s to both his and Dench’s credit that they form such a convincing relationship, and whilst it might be a very platonic love story, the film very clearly plays like a romance.

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Eddie considered that he was going to have to run a few marathons when the shoot was over!

As the Prince of Wales (Dirty Bertie) Izzard is unrecognisable, having put on the pounds and gained a beard, and he’s very good as the irascible next in line to the throne, balancing comic buffoonery with genuine menace. Bertie isn’t portrayed as a nice man, but it’s to his credit that Izzard wrings every drop of humanity out of him that he can.

As Abdul’s long-suffering friend Mohammed, Akhtar swings between humour and pathos. For long stretches of the film he’s the comic relief, yet eventually he has one of the stand out moments in the film and he plays it perfectly.

In his last screen role Tim Pigott-Smith does a sterling job as the Queen’s put upon Private Secretary, and there’s good work from Michael Gambon as Disraeli, and Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar as ladies in waiting. A cameo by Simon Callow as Puccini does seem a step too far however.

Some have seen the film as showing a saccharine version of British Imperialism, but given that practically every white British character other than Victoria is shown to be a snobbish racialist at one point or another this seems unfair. It’s worth noting as well that because the film spends very little time in India we don’t get to see very much of what the Raj was like which is a shame. Still Abdul telling Victoria the history of his country, and by the by mentioning the priceless artefacts that the British Empire stole/smashed in the process, is incredibly poignant.

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Abdul had a sneaking suspicion that Victoria may have lied about her age on her Tinder profile…

Yes, Victoria is portrayed as the only progressive in the British Empire, and yes for all that Abdul is naïve so is she with regard to just what crimes her subjects are perpetrating in her name, but at no point does it seem that all is rosy for the colonial subjects of the Empire.

But whilst it doesn’t completely take a rose-tinted view of Victoria, Abdul and the Empire, one can’t help feeling that the film plays it safe too often, and this applies to both sides of the divide. It would have been nice to hear more about what life was like in a subjugated India, but by the same token there’s potential for an interesting discussion around Muslim attitudes to women that’s never taken. How does Abdul reconcile his love for subservient, burka wearing wife with his affection for the most powerful woman in the world?

Still, the story of a friendship between an old woman and a young man is a breath of fresh air, even before you factor in the fact that one is a Muslim and the other a monarch.

Frears’ direction is assured and the film is sumptuous to look at. It may be light and whimsical at times, and maybe it doesn’t spend quite enough time delving into the darkened corners of the story (was Victoria really that progressive? Was Abdul really that naïve?) but that doesn’t mean it lacks heft when it needs it.

Amusing, well-acted, touching and well-staged this was a far better film than I expected it to be. I don’t expect I’ll rush to watch it again in a hurry, but I still enjoyed it more than many films I’ve seen this year.

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Unlike Vicky here this film didn’t remotely send me to sleep!

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