“Victoria & Abdul” is a tricky film. It’s excellent, no doubt, but is also thought provoking in ways which one might find unexpected. Once the credits rolled I heard members of the audience asking each other how they liked it. Most everyone did, but it brought up many questions and an animated discussion. There is more “there there” than a simple episode of the life of an historical character. Based on “true events-mostly” as claimed in the beginning titles, and directed by the incomparable Stephen Frears, “Victoria & Abdul” brings us to a lesser known story in the life of Queen Victoria. She’s shown in a declining state, being rolled out of bed, dressed, led around, frail and infirm despite her robust size, sleeping at the banquet table, and missing her mouth occasionally as she speeds through her meals. Her eyes are dull and her zest for life has long fled. We follow her blossoming under a new friendship with Abdul Karim, regain her feisty sparkle, and then the inevitable discontent this friendship causes within her family and household.
This is ground we’ve visited before in the film “Mrs. Brown”. This friendship, however, is very different. Although there is a question of the nature of the relationship, it is not skirting on the romantic in the same way we witnessed with Queen Victoria’s Scottish servant, John Brown. Indeed, Abdul Karim, for the Queen, embodies the romance of India, the most exotic jewel in her empire. Her hunger for knowledge of India and Abdul’s eagerness to build on his favor with the Queen brings him into a newly invented position, that of “the munshi” or teacher. He gives the Queen lessons in Urdu, culture, and questionable history. Queen Victoria thrives under her new passion for India. Her Munshi and beloved companion, Abdul, is lavished with attention, honors and an exalted, secure position of intimacy and trust at court… so long as Queen Victoria is in a position to protect him and his family.
You know where the story is headed, yet it is compelling enough to keep the audience rapt. The acting is perfection. We’ve seen Judi Dench as Queen Victoria before, and from the moment she is shown as a rag doll being pulled from the bed, we understand precisely what stage of her life we have come to witness. She brings a sweetness, loneliness, sympathy and naivete to the elderly queen which makes her treatment of those around her as pets, puppets, necessary evils, or simple nuisances not at all something to simply judge, but something to ponder. Ali Fazal plays Abdul with the wide eyed enthusiasm for adventure, a strong sense of ‘carpe diem” and a touch of the philosopher-poet. His handsome charm wins over both Victoria and the audience even when the character’s choices make one pause. Eddie Izzard is Bertie, the Prince Of Wales and plays the subtleties, adding to the broad, villainous strokes with which his character is written. Tim Pigott-Smith as Ponsonby, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, are standouts. Fenella Woolgar and Olivia Williams as the Queen’s ladies and the actors who make up the rest of the household are all stellar. Simon Callow blows up the screen as Puccini in a comic turn to remember. Adeel Akhtar as Mohammed has incredible chemistry with Azi Fazal’s Abdul. Akhtar deftly brings comedy, pain, and an intense truth to his embodiment of Mohammed, the character which inspires some of the film’s most thought provoking questions.
The questions “Victoria & Abdul” poses are legion. Even as I laughed there are uncomfortable moments when I wondered if it was appropriate. Within the comedy we see cruelty. There are heartbreaking examples of racism, ignorance and exclusion. Abdul and Mohammed, brought to England for the same purpose, have opposing views on empire yet their fates are as intertwined as they are different. This film made me think about race, religion, empirical politics, the ideals of friendship, love, hatred, home, ambition and the sorrows of aging and the end of life. Very few moments don’t ring true. The costumes are exquisite, scenery astonishing and the details and glimpses of life within the royal palace invite you into a world where nothing jars you back into the twenty first century except the notion of how much has changed and how much has remained the same. You could watch it simply for the story and the absolute beauty, but like all good films, it makes one think about what one has just seen, want to see it again and long to know more. What does that “mostly” in the opening titles mean? Was Queen Victoria truly as open and inclusive as she is portrayed in the film? Do friendship and love really conquer all? I’d absolutely encourage you to see “Victoria & Abdul” and tell us what YOU think!