Poor Abdul Karim is way, way over his head. He’s been ordered to travel halfway around the world, from his warm home in India to the cold shores of England, to present a ceremonial coin to the great Queen Victoria of England. Why him? Simply because he is the right height for the job. Talk about a “high” position!
Abdul doesn’t know what to expect of England: the place is as different from his homeland as baked beans are to garam masala. He certainly never imagined he’d somehow win over the affection of steely Queen Victoria, and become elevated to the rank of her “munsyi”, or spiritual teacher!
It sounds a bit too fantastical to be true, doesn’t it? But Victoria & Abdul is “based on true events… mostly”, as its opening credits say. Adapted from the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, the film takes a charming look at one of the most unlikely friendships in history.
It doesn’t get everything right, unfortunately. But its strong parts definitely outweigh its shortcomings.
Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins), Victoria & Abdul excels when it focuses on the character of Queen Victoria, played to perfection by Judi Dench.
This is, in a way, a sort of encore performance for her: Dench first played the monarch in 1997’s Mrs Brown, which also focused on one of Queen Victoria’s unusual friendships (that time with John Brown, one of her Scottish servants).
In the film, Dench portrays Victoria as an unpredictable, high-spirited woman defined by her position. Her queendom has given her immense power, yet also created for her a luxurious, stifling cage she cannot be free of. Trapped in never-ending displays of customs and courtesy, she becomes tired and disillusioned. It’s no wonder that she becomes attracted to Abdul Karim’s exotic ways.
The most arresting moments of the film, therefore, involve Victoria. Her passionate lament to Abdul that no one is fond of her is sufficiently moving, while her speech dressing down the members of an unruly House unhappy with her favours for Abdul is standing-ovation worthy.
You may not like Victoria throughout the film. Often she is shown as cantankerous and dismissive, perhaps using Abdul as a way to rebel against everyone else. But you will definitely be entertained every time she ends up on screen.
But Victoria is just 50% of the title. What about the other half? Abdul, unfortunately, is not fleshed out as well as his film partner. Actor Ali Fazal (mostly known for Bollywood films such as Baat Bann Gayi, Bobby Jasoos and Sonali Cable) does a decent job, but ultimately becomes resigned to a “Magical Foreigner” role seen in countless other films.
Abdul is mostly there to introduce Victoria to the wonders of India. He teaches her Urdu, tells her about the Taj Mahal, and makes grand, profound statements about how life is like the weaving of a carpet. If this were set in modern times he’d probably be booking her tickets for a Shah Rukh Khan film.
We know very little about his true character, or his true motivations – is he showing Victoria his life out of genuine love for her, or is he a social climber out to enhance his position? The film is rather vague on that aspect.
Most of what we see of him seems to hint that he is good: even scenes which highlight his mild transgression are waved aside quickly so the film can get along with the plot. Abdul sometimes seems so pure and immaculate he doesn’t seem real. It can be easier to empathise with the British nobility, whose ways are overturned after Abdul suddenly enters their lives.
Speaking of the British nobility, they are played well by a stellar cast including Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Tim Piggott-Smith and Paul Higgins, although their roles are limited to griping about Abdul at every opportunity.
Eddie Izzard also appears as Bertie, the Prince of Wales, his character coming across as a rather petulant man-child. Also nice to watch is Adeel Akhtar, who plays Abdul’s friend Mohammed, whose character gets to make jibes at the not-so noble nature of the British Empire.
Is the film historically accurate? Perhaps not entirely so. Victoria is portrayed as incredibly progressive for her time, and while the film does make a few comments about colonialism, it seems to absolve her of any wrongdoing for her part in it.
Differences in culture are often used as fodder for comedy. Then again, this is a film about a clash of cultures, so perhaps that is to be expected.
There are no profound gems of cross-cultural wisdom here; take the film as a period comedy about a very unlikely friendship, and you’ll be fine.
Victoria & Abdul
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins