It’s that time of year again: Hollywood’s Fall movie season, when the action blockbusters give way to “prestige” cinema vying for award attention. Historical drama Victoria & Abdul won’t be sweeping the Oscars, but it may score an eighth Best Actress nomination for Judi Dench. The film is a light crowd-pleaser with some serious pedigree, although that doesn’t make up for a major representational problem.

Victoria & Abdul is based on a forgotten piece of royal history, only rediscovered in the early 2000s. Essentially an unofficial sequel to 1997’s Mrs Brown – also starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria – the film chronicles the unlikely bond that develops between the British ruler and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly Muslim clerk from India. For the second time in her life, Victoria forms a controversial connection with a servant, causing scandal and rebellion within the Royal Household.

Victoria & Abdul starts more light-hearted and breezy than it ends. Victoria is introduced as a listless and cantankerous octogenarian made prisoner by her royal duties, so she makes life as difficult as possible for those around her in the most peevish, but entertaining, ways. Abdul, meanwhile, is a hardworking, cheerful young man who seizes the opportunity to travel from Agra to England, and present a ceremonial coin to the queen. Breaking protocol, Abdul makes eye contact with Victoria during the presentation, and almost overnight becomes her favourite companion.

There’s a bit more to it than that. Abdul’s presence revives Victoria, and she establishes him as her “Munshi”, or teacher – informing her about Indian culture and history, and teaching her to write Urdu. Naturally the queen’s staff resent this upstart “brown Mr Brown,” and her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales, glares on in every shot. On Abdul’s side, there’s Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who’s also been sent over from India, but shares none of Abdul’s admiration for British authority. Quite the opposite in fact.

Basically, Victoria & Abdul encourages the audience to cheer for Abdul and Victoria’s defiance of naysayers, and the queen’s progressive, anti-racist attitudes. The problem though is that for something called Victoria AND Abdul, 95% of the movie focusses on Victoria. There are several moments in the film where it’s clear that Abdul has lied, or withheld information. Not once does he get to explain himself, and the audience never gains the same access to his mental processes and motivations as they do with the queen. We never see Abdul talking frankly in private with his loved ones, for example.

As a result, Abdul comes across less as a real, complex person and more as a plot device to drive Victoria’s development. Even with hints of self-serving behaviour, he’s still the cliché of the smiling, unfailingly devoted colonial servant. You can see the problem there. And when you consider that the film upholds as one of its themes the value of cultural exchange – and that it comes from acclaimed director Stephen Frears – it’s even more bizarre that Victoria & Abdul ended up so myopically one-sided.

These realisations, and the frustrating unanswered questions about Abdul, leave a bad taste in the mouth. They undo a lot of good feeling generated by the film, which is otherwise an accessible and lightweight treat. Victoria & Abdul has been shot at many of the lush real-life locations Victoria used to frequent, and the gorgeous costumes further add to the sense of authenticity. The performances are also excellent. The last few scenes between queen and teacher are especially emotional, and the fact that Victoria & Abdul so effectively makes you feel something, regardless of its other issues, did positively impact on this review score.

Still, pleasures aside, your mind keeps circling back to the film’s problematic focus on a privileged white heroine dispensing favours and kindness. Victoria & Abdul would have been far more substantial and satisfying if it had just included a couple of scenes to flesh out Abdul’s character. But it doesn’t. And in the end, instead of being served a hearty Beef Wellington, the audience has ended up with the cinematic equivalent of a profiterole for mains.

Last Updated: September 27, 2017

Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul is a bittersweet examination of an unlikely friendship. It’s exceptionally well-acted, frequently funny and looks gorgeous, but for a movie with two names in the title, only one of those figures – the white woman – gets a proper exploration. Shame.

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