The last years in the life of Queen Victoria and her friendship with an Indian subject are the focus of British director Stephen Frears’ latest film Victoria and Abdul. Sadly, a cliché-ridden plot ultimately inhibits what could have been a spritely historical period drama.
Frears has had some success with monarchs. In 2006, The Queen picked up awards for Helen Mirren’s performance and the screenplay by Peter Morgan. Victoria and Abdul stars another monarch of British acting, Judi Dench, reprising her role from John Madden’s Mrs Brown, but unfortunately the casing isn’t as fine as the jewel in this latest film. Based on a book by Shrabani Basuand and adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, Frears’ film is a rudderless farce. Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim a lowly clerk in a prison who – for establishing shot convenience – lives in Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.
When it is decided to gift the Empress of India a commemorative coin – a Mohar – Abdul is chosen purely on account of his height to deliver the gift, alongside the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar). They travel to England and witness the poverty of the people – “spare a farthing, mister” – and then the absurd grandeur of India’s rulers. Instructed in protocol, they are to deliver the ring and then withdraw “without looking at her Majesty.” Something Abdul instantly forgets and Victoria and Abdul are soon BFFs. Everything here is obvious and nothing is surprising. The character of Abdul is underdeveloped, uninteresting and not so much a character at all as a nice smile. Victoria is played with characteristic skill by Dench,
However, the filmmakers have reduced her character into a debilitated, passive victim of a royal household full of racial hostility and conniving, led by Eddie Izzard’s arched eyebrow. He plays Prince Bertie and, as with almost all the characters, he is as multi-dimensional as a pantomime villain. His scheming is made easier by the Queen’s unfathomable ignorance. Victoria doesn’t seem to know the basic political realities of events – such as the Mutiny – that happened during her reign. Or of the treatment of the Indians and their treasure, even though she’s wearing some of it. This whitewashing of guilt on her part is not only a historical inaccuracy, it also deprives the story of any real drama. Her friendship with Abdul, who becomes her teacher in Urdu, would have been much more interesting if it existed in a prior awareness of the reality of British rule.
We’re even treated to the woke Victoria chiding one of her courtiers as a “racialist”, even though the whole edifice of the British Empire of which she is the flipping leader and very embodiment was built on the foundations of white supremacy! Watching this bilge you’d be forgiven for thinking the problem was simply a lot of theatre actors huffing “But your Majesty, he’s a Muslim!” and Victoria, rather than the emblem of that, was basically a portly Jeremy Corbyn in a sparkly hat. Abdul doesn’t help matters, being a such an arse-licker. He kisses the Queen’s foot on their second meeting, something that the film seems to think of as charming. There are hints that he’s a bit of a fibber and we learn he’s “riddled with the clap”, but like many of the things we are told, none of it matters and Frears is determined not to let anything interesting get in the way of the costumes and furniture.
Mohammed has one scene where he can express his disapproval of the whole thing, but when a title at the film’s end tells us that ‘India gained its independence in 1947’, it felt as relevant to what we have just seen as having a title that said, ‘Madonna had a number one hit with Into the Groove in 1985’. Neither Queen Victoria nor Abdul had anything to do with either one of them coming about. It is difficult to work out what to dislike most about Victoria and Abdul: the literal foot-licking or the cliché-ridden plot, but the greatest shame is the waste of a genuinely fascinating piece of history and a world-class Judi Dench performance.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty