A sequel of sorts to Mrs Brown, which came out twenty years ago and also starred Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, Victoria and Abdul presents the story of ‘history’s most unlikely friendship’. Ali Fazal plays the perpetually smirking Abdul Karim, who is one of two Indians chosen to present the Empress of India with a ceremonial coin. His one task is to present her with the coin and – above all else – not to look at Her Majesty.
Of course, Abdul cannot help himself and when his eyes meet the eyes of the queen a spark is lit which quickly develops into a passionate, albeit strictly platonic (at least according to the film) relationship between servant and empress. Even if you put the power relationship to one side, the age difference is enough to raise eyebrows: the real Abdul Karim was just twenty-four when he befriended the then sixty-eight year old monarch, and he remained her dear friend until her death at the age of eighty-one.
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), the film is undoubtedly nice to look at: whether it be the immaculate dining halls or idyllic gardens of the queen’s many residences, a Scottish loch or the textbook vista of India (Taj Mahal and all), the audience is constantly presented with pleasant sights and sounds. Thomas Newman’s Bake Off-esque score helps to emphasise the film’s atmosphere of jolly old Britishness.
One of the film’s many problems, however, is its heavy reliance on stereotypes: Scotland, for instance, is a land of rain, wind and bagpipes, where “everything is scratchy”, in the words of Her Madge. All English people, meanwhile, are well-spoken, well-to-do toffs.
There are two contrasting depictions of Indians in the film: the cheeky, child-like Abdul, who does away with Victorian conventions of propriety not out of any radicalism but simply because he’s too naive to know about such standards; and his friend Mohammed, who unlike Abdul actually dares to criticise British colonialism in India, which you would otherwise think was a tea-party after watching Victoria and Abdul. The film is quick to rush over such critique and we never actually see any of the horrors of colonialism. If Abdul Karim doesn’t care about Victorian proprieties then the film makers certainly do, and as a result we get a very rose-tinted view of Victorian Britain and colonial India. Mohammed aside, all other Indians seem to love Queen Victoria.
Then again, it’s hard not to love her when she’s played with such disdainful charm by Judi Dench, who at eighty-two has lost none of her vigour, even when playing the more subdued role of an elderly, dying monarch. Her fierceness in the face of opposition and her vulnerability when alone with her Munshi, as she affectionately calls Abdul, makes her the one character to be portrayed in more than one dimension, and her friendship with Abdul is undeniably sweet. Even if it isn’t worth paying to see at the cinema, Victoria and Abdul is certainly a pleasant, if problematic film.
Image: Universal Pictures