VICTORIA AND ABDUL
Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Judi Dench, Ali Faizal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 9 November 2017
Rating : PG
20 years ago, Dame Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That film was about the controversial relationship between Victoria and her servant John Brown, and now, Dench returns to the role in a film about another controversial relationship between Victoria and a servant, but one of a different stripe.
It is 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Faizal) and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel from India to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin known as a mohur. Abdul catches Victoria’s attention, and she hires him as an attendant. Abdul begins to teach Victoria Urdu, and becomes Victoria’s ‘munshi’, or teacher. Victoria’s affinity for Abdul, an Indian Muslim, earns the ire of the royal household and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, develops a hatred for and jealousy of Abdul. As the royal household plots to have Abdul removed, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul transcends that of a Queen and her servant. The former prison clerk finds himself becoming a confidant to Victoria, the Empress of India, in her waning years.
Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears, who has helmed awards season prestige films including The Queen, Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins. Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall adapted the screenplay from Shrabani Basu’s book, also titled Victoria and Abdul. The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek declaration that it is “based on a true story…mostly”. The film endeavours to be funny and heart-warming, and it often is, but many have taken issue with its depiction of historical events, which have been termed revisionist.
The film wants to be a character piece that is anchored by the unlikely bond shared between the Queen and a servant, but it is impossible to detach the story from the surrounding political and historical context. Victoria is made out to be progressive and tolerant, with the royal household and staff treating Abdul with utmost prejudice. The film seems to exaggerate and simplify events for the sake of coherence, as historical films often do, and it is unlikely that the real Victoria was an activist who denounced Islamophobia. The film also sanitizes the atrocities committed by the British Raj during the Empire’s rule of India, a painful period in history which has left scars that are still evident today.
However, these flaws in the film’s approach are significantly papered over by Dench’s remarkable performance. She plays Victoria as a lonely, curmudgeonly elderly woman, who has never quite recovered from the loss of her husband Albert. There’s tender vulnerability in the portrayal, which is tempered with formidable power. Even if this particular portrayal of Victoria might not be the most historically accurate, Dench is consistently riveting. As if there were ever any doubt about it, she once again proves to be a national treasure of the highest order.
The dashing Faizal is immensely likeable as Abdul, playing the part with a genuine warmth and having a certain glow about him. Unfortunately, Abdul feels under-written, and the film takes on undertones of Orientalism by depicting Abdul as overly servile, sagely, gentle and enlightened. It seems the real Abdul was more aggressively ambitious than the benign film version. That said, the chemistry between Dench and Faizal does work, and both actors play off each other well.
The supporting characters are largely one-note caricatures, with the various members of the royal household tut-tutting about Osbourne House. Izzard’s Bertie is drawn as an especially despicable villain who’s easy to hate, and while Izzard bites into the role with relish, the character is difficult to buy as an actual person. Akhtar is funny as Buksh, who is constantly playing second fiddle to the taller, more handsome Abdul. He also gets an excellent dramatic scene.
Victoria and Abdul boasts pedigree behind the camera beyond the director and writer – costume designer Consolata Boyle’s re-creations of Victorian fashions are lavish and eye-catching, while Thomas Newman’s score incorporates Indian instruments like the sitar, tabla and santur hammered dulcimer into his usual new age orchestral style. Cinematographer Danny Cohen presents the English and Indian locations in all their grandeur, with Victoria’s Glassalt Shiel retreat in Scotland looking especially gorgeous.
The film starts out as a comedy and is often amusing, but as it journeys into more dramatic territory, one might get distracted attempting to parse the implications of the film and the liberties it takes with historical events in service of emotional beats. It’s a good thing then that Victoria and Abdul has Dench’s peerless skill as an actress to count on.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars