An unlikely friendship between the second-longest reigning monarch of Britian and an Indian Muslim servant in “Victoria and Abdul,” directed by Stephen Frears, provides an exhilarating backdrop for an otherwise underwhelming, even disappointing, retrospect on British court, Empire, and the beginnings of diaspora.
Following “A United Kingdom” and “Viceroy’s House” in the newest half-colonial critique, half-nostalgia for the British Empire film installment, in strolls “Victoria & Abdul.” Verging on problematic, the film tries incredibly hard to sarcastically critique the repressive white order of nineteenth-century British Empire as if the postcolonial fallout were now widely accepted.
Dame Judi Dench seamlessly plays the infamous aging Queen Victoria, notorious in the history books as on the screen, as the Queen embarks on a controversial friendship with an Indian servant, played by actor Ali Fazal.
The film’s opening reads, “Based on real events… mostly,” accompanied by perky sitar music and a title card that transposes the film’s name in English and Urdu. Shaky shots of “chaotic” Agra, India in 1887 as seen from Abdul Karim’s (Fazal’s) view introduces the audience to his world prior to that of the British Queen. The prison clerk is quickly summoned to the colonial metropole as the “tall and handsome” exchange-servant for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
A dizzying array of royal etiquette and instructions throw Abdul into a six-course luncheon surrounded by dull, pale nobles and a bored, decrepit Queen. Disobeying the number one rule of the Queen’s court (to never to look at her), his dark eyes lock with her translucent blues for a gaze reminiscent of love (or fascination) at first sight. Seeking excitement (meaning, exotic wonders) and child-like adoration (meaning, a devoted servant), the Queen slowly, but surely, pushes the limits of royal standards to ultimately install Abdul as her Munshi (teacher). He subsequently becomes a member of her Royal Household for the last 14 turbulent years of her life.
Surrounding the burgeoning friendship – an indeed platonic mother-and-son love – are the relentlessly bigoted, colonialist members of the Household. The Queen’s private secretary (Tim Pigott-Smith), physician (Paul Higgins), and heir (Eddie Izzard) become the bumbling racist trio disapproving of the Queen’s decision to learn Urdu (called Hindu, Hindi, and Hindustani intermittently), understand and be inclusive of Islam (such as Abdul’s fully-veiled wife), and showcase Indian art and culture – all within the walls of Buckingham Palace, in efforts of proving herself as Empress of India. While an effective tool of colonial commentary on the “oppressors of the entire Indian subcontinent,” as Abdul’s fellow traveling servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) asserts, this also brings about a paradox.
Highlighting the xenophobia of everyone around, the accepting Queen, in turn, presents herself as progressive, unprejudiced, and culturally curious in comparison – as seeking to be one with her “billion subjects.” However, this was certainly not the case (the Queen, for example, considered her last Prime Minister Gladstone “soft” on India compared to his predecessor, Disraeli) and unjustifiably washes her hands clean of the Empire’s dominance. Every one of the Queen’s push-backs on colonial rule and white supremacy (“I can take a Muslim, wherever I like”) is at the detriment of the ruling class, which she inherently sits atop.
The Queen’s ignorance is highlighted by her plain lack of knowledge of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (“the mutiny”) and the subsequent incorporation of the Indian subcontinent into the Empire. After publicly asserting the Munshi’s telling of the Rebellion as the violent suppression of Muslims on the subcontinent by the British and Hindus alike, to which her Household strongly counters that the Muslim minority was actually the aggressor, Victoria displays her naiveté while also realizing the subjectivity of Abdul’s teachings. Abdul is, in fact, primarily there on a mission to climb up the social ladder. His constant, at times infuriating, devotion culminates in Victoria’s unprecedented announcement of Abdul’s forthcoming Knighthood.
In real life, Karim, remembering this story is a true one, relentlessly lobbied for his own Knighthood for over ten years, a fact only known since the release of his diaries in 2010. The proclamation brings about more desperate attempts from the bumbling trio and others in the Household to get rid of the dreaded Munshi, all of which Abdul is similarly irritatingly passive about. Abdul’s own resignation to the Queen’s rule over him and his home turn him into a fly on the wall of the open bigotry he faces.
The Vulture’s film critic David Edelstein put it best – “Victoria & Abdul” is a sort of “Driving Queen Victoria” in reference to the movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which the old woman is enchanted by dark, handsome man’s every movement. Above all of the shallow narrative failings, Dench is truly in her element as a Queen who had lost the will to live enlightened by the beauty, colors, and flavors of a young man and his culture (including that of a mango; “What is a Mango?!” reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s “What is a Weekend?” in “Downton Abbey”).