Victoria and Abdul is a contented Sunday afternoon popcorn flick that offers the audience a glimpse at one of history’s many unique and unexpected unions. But what this film and many of its ilk lack is any real insight into the political and cultural dynamics that swirl around two protagonists that choose to be blind to the realities that make theirs a complicated friendship.
We first meet Abdul (Ali Fazal) in India where he works as an intake clerk at a prison. When he is selected to travel to London to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial coin he enthusiastically agrees. When we meet Victoria she is an aging monarch bored to sleep with the daily grind of formal dinners and meetings with dignitaries and prime ministers. Royalty, they’re just like us. It is when she’s dozing off over another meal, that she sees Abdul as he retreats from giving her the coin. Told never to look directly at the queen, Abdul can’t help himself. He’s also not a person that is going to miss an opportunity. Before long, Victoria is taken with this exotic, mysterious man and much to the dismay of everyone in her employ, Abdul becomes her teacher and advisor.
At the center of Victoria and Abdul is a rather intriguing love story between an aging woman desiring a breath of fresh air in her priggish role as queen and a handsome Muslim Indian who dreams well beyond his station as one of her many subjects. There is many a cheeky glance across a crowded room, intimate conversations about life and family, a hurtful betrayal, and ultimately a death bed vigil where soft goodbyes are uttered through flowing tears. It’s an interesting way to frame a friendship like a romance, or at the very least two like souls joined in deep companionship. Such a framework is no doubt bolstered, in this case, by the films leads.
Dench as Victoria is predictably magnificent. Knowing not one lick about Victoria personally, Dench’s performance is everything I want the longest reigning monarch in world history (until recently that is) to be. I will also give this film credit for portraying an older actress in rather unflattering closeups. There are many times director Stephen Frears’ camera fills the frame with Dench’s tired, curmudgeonly face. It’s something rarely seen onscreen and not only was it necessary for this film’s interpretation of Victoria but no one can argue that Dench isn’t a boss.
Fazal as Abdul is a very fitting counterpart to Dench, and he holds his own next her. He is able to toe the line between Abdul’s manipulating opportunism and his being a true steadfast confidant. I only wish the script gave us a little more insight into his motivations, thoughts, and feelings, about being swept up and carried away from his humble home in India to the grandeur of Victoria’s palaces. Whether the history just isn’t known (despite the recent discovery of Abdul’s personal journals, many of his personal letters and correspondence with Victoria were destroyed after her death), or the filmmakers weren’t as interested in his story is tough to tell. But when the title of your movie is Victoria and Abdul an audience should be able to get inside both character’s heads.
Victoria and Abdul is a light fluff of a film, perfectly enjoyable, non-threatening, which is part of the problem with films that take place during Britain’s control of India and fail to delve into the broader implications of colonialism. The topic is paid a small amount of lip service in the form of villainous, bigoted British officials and a hapless compatriot of Abdul who is forced into a life of service alongside his friend that he did not choose. It does a serviceable job addressing some issues around imperialism but these secondary characters are so one-dimensional the conversation is never able to delve much deeper than surface level. At the very least it may pique your interest in learning more about a notable British queen and a man born from nothing who ended up at the ear of the most powerful woman in the world.
Victoria and Abdul is opening in limited release today in the Philly area.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.