A majestic Judi Dench helps this film avoid mediocrity.
Victoria and Abdul is a pleasant and gentle, but ultimately plodding, movie depicting the real-life friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian Muslim servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
After an initial faster-paced section explaining how Abdul came into the life of Britain’s then longest-reigning monarch in 1887, the film settles into its constant second-gear rhythm. While Abdul is introduced straightaway to the viewer, wandering through the bustling streets of Agra to his workplace as ledger at the prison, Stephen Frears’ clever direction holds back from a shot of Dench’s face as the weary and grumpy Victoria is awoken from her slumber by a litany of servants for another tedious day of ceremonies, diplomatic niceties and extravagant banquets.
Four years on from the death of her previous close friend and servant, John Brown, we find a monarch prisoner of her royal routine, surrounded by sycophants and desperately bored of her life. Seemingly her only means of escape from, or mischief against, the tight control of the Royal Household under Henry Ponsonberry (the late Tim Piggott-Smith), is to wolf down her meals, preventing her aristocratic sycophants from finishing their own due to the royal protocol of removing all meals from the table once the monarch has finished theirs.
The appeal to Victoria of a friendship with Abdul is obvious – a “very handsome” man offering her vitality and an element of the exotic in her life. As well as his initial breach of royal protocol in catching the eye of the Queen, Abdul’s further breach when later kissing the foot of Victoria leads her to remark “I suddenly feel much better now”. As their companionship progresses, we see how Victoria delights in learning of Indian culture and food and writing and speaking Urdu. Abdul’s reasons on his part for his close friendship with the Queen are portrayed as principally the attractions of power and wealth, as he gradually elevates himself to wearing increasingly lavish garments and is granted a cottage and servants of his own at Osborne House, the Isle of Wight. His exclamation during the performance of a show for the delight of the Queen of “I am the Sultan, king of all kings!” underlines how the shine of power has gone to his head by this point, having even led him to mislead and temporarily break the Queen’s trust.
Nevertheless, even in the face of ever-mounting pressure from the Royal Household and now aware of Abdul’s flaws, Victoria remains steadfastly loyal to the companion, refusing to abandon him and indeed, conferring an honour upon him. Dench shines particularly in Victoria’s refutation of the Prince of Wales’s spearheaded effort to class her as insane unless she evicts Abdul. Her regaling of how she possesses many ailments – age, rheumatism, being morbidly obese – yet is not insane, whilst the camera slowly but surely pans out from a close-up of Dench’s face to take in the wider background of the room, captures the viewer’s attention completely.
In the end, the movie’s title is highly misleading – relatively little of the 112 minutes of screen time is spent with both Victoria and Abdul on screen together interacting and far more on Victoria’s battle against the Royal Household’s, led by Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), prejudice against and determination to be rid of Abdul. This, along with the dislikeable traits of Abdul’s character, his lack of any care for his servant-friend Mohammed (the wonderful and underused Adeel Akhtar) until he dies is a particularly displeasing aspect, had the unfortunate effect of rendering this viewer devoid of much empathy for Abdul, particularly in the film’s later stages. The lack of time Dench and Fazal are granted together to portray their intimacy during the movie hinders us from empathising with Abdul much at all. Questions have to be asked whether Frears was right to choose to not employ artistic license and depict any of the destroyed written correspondence between the Queen and Abdul as this may have made Abdul’s part of the friendship more convincing.
Other elements of the film are also unsatisfactory. While the Royal Household’s distaste in Abdul is made clear as based on racist undercurrents, this element of the narrative is generally portrayed in farcical terms as the toe-curling household thwarted by the ageing Victoria. Combined with some historical revisionism as Victoria is portrayed as just happening to be Empress of India at a time of great colonialist exploitation, this does lead to the film feeling short on depth for much of its screen time.
However, it remains watchable enough. Undoubtedly what Victoria and Abdul does showcase once more in cinemas is the timeless majesty of the acting of now 82 years-old Dame Judi Dench – long may she reign.
Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, certificate PG.