Tis the season for British (and Indian) history films, what with Viceroy’s House and this comedy-drama, both of which explore the uneasy relationship between an occupied nation and its occupier. Victoria and Abdul documents the largely unknown-to-the-public story of how Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) befriended a Muslim servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) before the turn of the century, incorporating him into the royal household until her death in 1901.
Stephen Frears’ film is much funnier than I anticipated, garnering amusing situations and anecdotes from the fish-out-of-water premise of two Indian men being sent to England for a routine presentation, then having to stay when Abdul catches the queen’s eye (which he was forbidden to seek). But gradually the subject turns serious as the royal entourage becomes concerned about Abdul’s access to and influence over the queen, and how racial, religious and cultural divides prove to be difficult to cross. The story ends rather tragically, as history is wont to do, but that only emphasizes the film’s stance that diversity is precious and everyone ought to be valued.
Other than the wise queen, the British characters are shown to be bigoted, near-sighted fools to one degree or another, squabbling over power and unable to appreciate the wisdom, openness and charm that the queen sees in Abdul. This struck me as an indictment of our contemporary situation, although it seems to be historically accurate as well. Characters act in very modern ways in some scenes, especially as Abdul is shown to have misled the queen and is humiliated for it, which seems anachronistic and even like pandering to modern sensibilities. Perhaps that is intentional, but for me it removes a timeless quality that better movies display and share.
Victoria and Abdul is a good film that gradually changes course midstream in order to move from entertainment to persuasion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but other films have transitioned with more effectiveness. The acting is top-notch, especially from Judi Dench, who may well earn her second Oscar nomination for portraying the same character (Mrs. Brown, 1997). I believe Viceroy’s House, which follows the path of India’s independence some forty years later, to be a much better, more valuable movie, yet this one is probably more crowd-pleasing, given its humor and smaller-scale theatrics. ☆ ☆ ☆. 1 November 2017.