Victoria and Abdul

spectator, Nov 16, 2017

This is effectively a sequel to the excellent 1997 movie, Mrs. Brown, which detailed Queen Victoria’s friendship with Scotsman John Brown – a relationship that lasted from shortly after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, until Brown’s death in the 1880s. Both that earlier movie and Victoria and Abdulstar the marvelous Judi Dench as the queen and her performance provides the strongest element of continuity. Dench aged twenty years between the two movies and has little difficulty playing an older, wearier Victoria. In 1887 Victoria met the common-born Indian Muslim Abdul Karim and the two remained close until her death in early 1901.

The close friendship between the queen and her Indian servant was deemed scandalous by her son, “Bertie” and the Royal Household, not only because of the class difference but because of his dark-skinned ethnicity. He was mockingly referred to as the “queen’s brown John Brown.” Director Stephen Frears doesn’t focus on the racist angle but, by making many of the principals bloated, self-important, fatuous asses, he illustrates how ridiculous their opposition is. In fact, outside of the likable good-hearted Victoria no one looks totally good in Frears’ portrayal. For example, there is no doubting Abudl’s fondness for the queen but there are inklings of selfish motivations. He is not always truthful and there is a strong element of opportunism in his rise. Victoria seemingly recognized and even acknowledges this and, when she hears the accusation, remarks “How is that different from any of the rest of you?” But his selfishness is generally downplayed and Abdul is mostly seen as a true friend of the queen, who refers to him as “The Mushi,” which translates to “teacher.”

The tone, as is often true of Frears’ work, is lighthearted but not frivolous. However, in addition to the developing friendship between the elderly queen and the young Indian, he deals with difficult subjects such as cultural racism that existed in England against those of dark skin. There is backstabbing and double-dealing but the queen, who has been at this for 60 years knows how to play the game better than her advisors and her son (who would eventually become King Edward VII).

Judi Dench, once again commands the screen as Queen Victoria. Abdul is convincingly portrayed by the handsome Ali Fazal and his interpretation is layered, a mixture of shrewdness and naiveté. Many of the supporting roles are played by an all-star lineup of respected British actors. Eddie Izzard is son Bertie, Olivia Williams is Baroness Churchill (Winston’s mother), and Michael Gambon is Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister.

As humorously noted in the ads, Victoria and Abdul is “based on true events - - mostly” and scripted from Shrabani Basu’s historical chronicle of the same name. It is a sprightly romp but basically another showcase for Judi Dench’s reigning talent. It is worth seeing for her magisterial performance but don’t confuse it with history. (We have documentaries for that.)

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