In the latest addition to the glut of historical movies we’ve seen released this year, an ageing Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) takes a liking to prison clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazar) when he is selected to present her with a commemorative coin in London. Taken by his bearing and good looks, the Queen quickly exercises her rights as the Empress of India and requests that Abdul become her personal manservant.
What follows is an extraordinary and “mostly” true story (according to the disclaimer at the start) about the unlikely platonic friendship that develops between the Queen and Abdul. Elevated to the status of “munshi”, or spiritual teacher, Abdul soon finds himself the subject of ire as the rest of the queen’s household shuns him.
This is essentially an unofficial sequel to Mrs Brown (1997), which explored the relationship between Queen Victoria (also played by Dench) and John Brown, the common-born Scottish manservant who was so close to the Queen that people constantly questioned his hold over her. The spectre of John Brown looms over this movie, and at one point one of the ladies-in-waiting even calls Abdul “the brown John Brown”, which I felt was in bad taste.
One could be forgiven for expecting Victoria and Abdul to be yet another historical movie that shines light on yet another previously obscure part of history. Add a stellar cast of actors and a good dose of royalty, and it should be a shoo-in for awards season, right?
Wrong. Director Stephen Frears has chosen to make a movie that is comedic without being actually funny, dramatic without it ever having any sort of emotional impact. I found myself cringing at every moment that saw a clash of cultures or some new misunderstanding.
Even while laughing at the jokes peppered liberally throughout the script, I couldn’t help but think that this was such a sanitised and fictionalised version of history that it might end up doing more harm than good. As a citizen of an ex-British colony, I found it even more worrying that the themes of empire, racial and class prejudice were only handled superficially.
Frears has framed the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul as one where an old, lonely widow finds delight in life again after meeting a stranger from an exotic land. But the reality is that the friendship was one complicated by vast differences in age, social standing and cultures. This is the sort of thing that is ripe with opportunities for drama and some reflection on the state of the British Empire, but unfortunately, Frears did not go in that direction.
The script does not give Fazal much to do, but he did what he could with what he had, and I came away from it with no real impression of him. Dench is ever indomitable and unshakeable even in her portrayal of a Queen close to the end of her life, but her performance is not enough. Even the combined powers of Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Prince of Wales, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury and the late Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby aren’t enough to elevate the mawkish and inconsistent tone of the movie.
2017 has seen the release of several movies that examine key moments in 20th century British history, from A United Kingdom to Viceroy’s House, and then again to Churchill, with varying degrees of success. Given the pedigree of the director and the cost, it is unconscionable that a movie like Victoria and Abdul should lean on colonial-era caricatures at a time when issues of nationalism and prejudice are being discussed in all corners of the world.
Victoria and Abdul opens in Singapore today. Tell us what you think of the movie!