Film Review: VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Belle McIntyre
Stephen Frears has certainly proved himself to be a masterful story teller about the whole range of society. His earliest work, My Beautiful Launderette, The Grifters, to name a few were focused on the working class and the marginalized or petty-criminal elements and he effectively presents their gritty world and world view. He seems equally at ease working on the opposite side of the spectrum, ie. The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins, and now Victoria and Abdul. This latest is absolutely a crowd pleaser. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
It begins in 1887 with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration of fifty years on the throne. Alas, Victoria (Judy Dench) is totally over it. She is bored and lonely after 26 years of widowhood and tedious ceremonial duties. So when a tall, bearded and handsome young Indian servant, beautifully attired in a brocade coat and turban presents her with a ceremonial coin and commits the cardinal sin of making eye contact, she is somewhat gobsmacked (in a good way). She is jolted out of her lethargy and requests a private audience. Whereupon, the young man entrances her with his manner and his stories of things which to Victoria are thoroughly exotic, but which are simply part of his reality. This is the unlikely beginning of a beautiful relationship which lasted for around ten years until her death.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a poor, yet literate, Muslim from Agra who works in a prison as sometype of clerk recording data which, in his telling, makes him a writer. He has been brought to England for only one task - the presentation of the coin. The turn of events which ensues takes everyone by surprise and pleases no one except for Abdul and Victoria. Victoria’s ignorance about India, of which she is Empress, is almost total and she becomes obsessed with learning as much as possible, including the language. To that end, she elevates Abdul to teacher or Munshi and brings him into the royal household and spends many hours with him every day.
This relationship drives the family, the household, her ministers and staff completely around the bend. As her affection and his influence grows their opposition becomes virulent and at one point they threaten to have her committed. The fact that the queen is happy and fully engaged with life again is not enough for them to accept this “brown” man into the household and some very ugly racism is revealed. It is not a flattering portrait of colonialism. The petty jockeying for position is carried out by a terrific cast, including Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith, Simon Callow and Eddie Izzard as Victoria’s much-disdained and apoplectic son, Bertie.
The film condenses the time and does not go particularly deep with details needed to fill in some of the unlikely seeming events. But it makes for a delightful story which seems more like a fairy tale. But further research on my part enhanced the story for me. The fact that Victoria went from not knowing there were Muslims in India to speaking and writing fluent Urdu is a remarkable accomplishment for anyone and particularly someone of her age. She managedto keep him by her side until her death and the story has a particular mysterious allure by virtue of the attempted eradication of the whole episode by the royal family and the court. It was only revealed upon the discoveries of her diaries written in Urdu as well as Abdul’s long after his death.It is a thoroughly enjoyable story with beautiful locations, sets and costumes and stunning cinematography. It will make you want to know more. All good to me.