I went to watch Victoria & Abdul with slight trepidation. I told myself that perhaps this will be one more instance of “excuse us for oppressing you, we meant well” British apology that peddles a softer form of colonialism. After all, there was Viceroy’s House earlier this year.
However, Victoria & Abdul is nothing like Viceroy’s House. Yes, it still is a British apology-peddling-soft-power, and yes, it still tries to explain away colonialism as something that happened with tacit approval of the oppressed, but is also a film that is funny and moving in parts with actors who are not stunted and wooden in their performances, and an almost romance plot that moves the film away from its complicated political background.
Victoria & Abdul is produced by Tim Bevan, Tracey Seaward, Eric Fellner and others, on a script written by Lee Hall. The film is based on a book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, and is directed by Stephen Frears. Victoria & Abdul stars Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazil, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams and others.
The book, and therefore the film, is apparently based on real incidents that came to light when in 2010, the private journal of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s confidant, was discovered.
In the film, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazil) is a conscientious Muslim man who is employed by the Colonial Government in Agra. He is selected – because of his height – to travel to England to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a Gold Mohur, a gift from the Empire to the Empress. In England, he comes face to face with British pomp and ceremony, all in preparation for the jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign.
An ardent believer in the colonial process, and a worshipper of everything English, Abdul cannot hold his excitement back and does the very thing he was asked not to – look at the queen in the eye. The queen takes a fancy to Abdul and demands he becomes her personal servant. A role Abdul is only too happy to perform. Victoria also arranges for Abdul Karim to go back to India to bring his wife to England.
Abdul soon becomes the queen’s close confidant, and teacher of Urdu, and all things Indian. His growing influence with the queen has begun to worry the rest of the Royal household, in particular the queen’s son and Prince of Wales, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who will become King Edward VII when Victoria dies.
The household, including the queen’s personal secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby, the royal physician Sir James Reid, the queen’s companion Jane Spencer, the Baroness Churchill, are very displeased with the presence of a lowly Indian among the English gentry, and are further enraged when Victoria announces that she will knight the Munshi at a public ceremony. The household decides to mutiny and tells the queen that they will resign. The Royal Physician, James Reid, also writes out a statement that decrees the queen has become insane. But Bertie, the Prince of Wales and the queen’s son, refuses to sign the statement and thus things come to a head.
The Queen dies, the Munshi is ousted from the Royal household, and the film wraps up.
The most striking thing about Victoria & Abdul is the casting. Dame Judi Dench does indeed look like the aging, grieving, frail Queen Victoria – with clever costume design and makeup that gives her the profile that we’ve seen in many paintings and pictures. Eddie Izzard as Albert Edward, Bertie, the Prince of Wales is quite brilliant.
For a man, and a stand up comedian, known to go off on surreal rants and ramblings about the inner life of lego pieces and household appliances, Izzard is on point as the heir apparent. On the one hand, afraid his legacy will be squandered away by what he sees as his mother’s infatuation with an Indian, and on the other, someone who wants to keep up the pretenses and the imagery of the Royalty, and ensure no scandal leaks outside, Izzard does a stellar job. One moving scene where the queen is in her death bed, and Bertie and the other members of the household are gathered around, you can see Izzard as Bertie crying, in deep mourning. The queen asks for the Munshi, Bertie brings him in. The queen dies in Munshi’s hands, and Bertie reaches over, a hand on the shoulder of this other “son”, he consoles him. Later, Bertie orders the eviction of Abdul and his family and burns everything associated with him.
Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria with a bit of droll humour and gentle scorn at the pomp and circumstance surrounding her. However, Ali Fazil plays Abdul Karim as an over sincere supplicant, a willing slave who incidentally knows Urdu poetry, and it is a bit grating.
Funny and moving, slapstick and poignant, Victoria & Abdul is written, performed, and directed to get a reaction. However, it still is a film that seeks to justify and explain British colonialism and oppression, and portray the Empress of India as a caring, concerned monarch and not as the overlord of an empire built on the back of slavery, violence, and subjugation.
The Victoria & Abdul review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.