Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) arrives in England from India to participate in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee by presenting a ceremonial coin. The young Indian clerk is shocked that Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has taken a liking to him. As her majesty examines the can and cannots of her reigning over Britain and its territories, she and Abdul embark in an unlikely friendship that her household seek to destroy, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and even the family physician, Dr Reid (Paul Higgins). As the friendship develops, the eighty-one year-old monarch begins to see the world in a new light claiming some humanity.
Together with a miserable “stand-in tall man” called Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar (The Big Sick), they present the coin and they find that Victoria is as sour, as depressed, as prickly and as English as her post-Albert reputation says she is. However, not long after meeting Karim, Victoria is laughing and trying to learn Urdu and all about the Koran. All this is much to the dismay of her heir, Bertie, the Prince of Wales and the rest of the royal household. This includes the household staff the lords, ladies and everybody else whose name wasn’t Victoria or Abdul, as everyone and anyone was trying to break them apart by any means necessary, either directly or indirectly.
Having waited for this since it was announced, I sat down with nervousness in my local Cineworld. However, I was on edge since Stephen Frears’ last film (Florence Foster Jenkins) is my most abhorred film of 2016. Nonetheless, Victoria & Abdul is a delight that I will certainly watch again. This film is best described as a comedy-drama but the comedic interactions get some getting used to. When I think about Victoria and Empire, I never think comedy. I think English stiff upper lip but the comedy is done well and it’s very amusing indeed. The drama is fast which allows this film to move along briskly. And the pacing is often crucial in my enjoyment of period pieces. Good job.
Whilst this is a film set in the reign of Victoria, the symbol of British Empire and imperialism, this is not The Black Prince nor is it Viceroy House or a slavery drama set in The West Indies. The systematic oppression of third world countries is not suitable for a film like this “despite being true”. The film doesn’t touch on imperialism in depth. In India, Abdul is middle-class man with a decent job shown respect by his English managers.The Muslim uprising isn’t really explored much other than it being used as a plot device to show how easily White Power can be wielded against colonials and people of colour, regardless if this version of Victoria is portrayed as a Mary Sue.
The Indian political subplot could have been better explored but in order to do that, the tonal shift would have been dramatically amplified into drama and we would have lost that very well-done comedic aspect of the film. Though, Victoria’s lack of knowledge about India (despite being Empress of India) is made obvious. The focus of Victoria & Abdul is on the scandal of a Christian monarch (also head of the Church of England) having a spiritual teacher (Munshi) who isn’t white or a Christian. Given the ending and the events that lead up to that point, the obvious racist ideologies in the film are rather too clean cut and it could have been bloodier (metaphorically).
The supporting cast is brilliant as well with Olivia Williams (The Halcyon) playing the salty but entertaining Lady Churchill, Simon Callow (Outlander) as Puccinini and the late Tim Piggot-Smith (The Remains of the Day) as Sir Henry Ponsonby (Head of the Royal Household). It was sad to hear he died early this year. I was set to see him as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. There’s also Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) as Lord Sailsbury AKA Lord Robert Cecil. Also of commendation is Fenella Woolgar (loved her as Agatha Christie in Doctor Who) as lady’s maid Miss Phipps. When she parlays with Queen Victoria as a quivering mess, that’s real comedy gold.
Victoria & Abdul is a great film with a lot of heart that I will see again. However, it’s no Viceroy’s House and I truly hope that Judi Dench gets her dues come Oscar-season, as that monologue about madness to her son Bertie is truly something.