This sugar-sweet historical tale looks at a complicated friendship between a monarch and her colonial subject.
Victoria and Abdul tells the historical tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her servant Abdul (Ali Fazal). The historical accuracy of this film (according to my five minutes of research) doesn’t seem terrible, but there are obviously going to be problems. Part of the reason I tend to not like historical films is that I have to divide my thoughts between narrative enjoyment and the veracity of the events. The film is so light and fluffy that it frequently betrays the serious issues present in the film.
For example, when we first meet the queen’s attendants (with Abdul waiting for his part in a ceremony) we have all the servants running around and flipping out. The reactions and movements as they prepare for dinner are more fitting for a Monty Python sketch than anything else. Here we have a man plucked from his homeland and forced to travel thousands of miles to present a coin to a monarch. Should we focus on the culture shock? No—just have everything running around making funny noises. That’s how films get Oscar noms, just so you know. The whole scene is played for laughs, and these junks of outright silliness make up about the first quarter of the film.
We see Victoria mystified with the handsome and foreign Abdul, and her infatuation with him draws the ire of her advisors. Abdul is more than willing to become the Queen’s pet (and it seems the historical Abdul may have been more willing to manipulate the social ladder), but there is an issue here. The entirety of colonialism is represented by Abdul (minus about a two-minute segment with his friend Mohammed) and Abdul seems to love it. Perhaps the real Abdul saw the chaos of colonization as a ladder (cue Littlefinger here…), and it is important to show the multiple sides of an issue, but only showing one is just lazy. We are reminded incessantly that Victoria is the Empress of India despite her never even seeing the land. There could have been some harsh (and deserved) criticisms here, yet the director just wasn’t willing to pull the trigger.
Like most films of this type, we have to make Abdul near saintly to make our point. Colonial era British citizens were a bunch of racists jackasses. Is anyone surprised by this revelation? How is this a compelling point to make? It is an important message, sure; however, there is almost no meat to the argument. By presenting Abdul as so perfect there is little reasoning for the hatred he receives from the other servants and the Queen’s advisors. I might be harping here, but I believe it would be more powerful to show that real human beings can be racist. Instead, we have a bunch of racist caricatures acting racist—the bite of the issue is muzzled. –Here is the crux of the film. Is it trying to show an actual historic moment, or is it trying to comment on the current times? My guess is the latter, and right now we need to show the subtlety of racism. Having it so thickly painted allows for people to redeem themselves by counter referencing these moments i.e. “I’m not that bad.”
To the film’s credit, it is a lavish and pretty film. Dench is simply magnetic in her role as the monarch. Fazal is as charming as she is curmudgeonly, and the two really do make quite a pair. I enjoyed the film, but I walked away more annoyed with the lack of teeth than anything else. Mind you, these are teeth the director willingly removed. We end up with a sanitized and sweet story of an unlikely friendship. It meets these goals well, but it is hard to not think about what more it could have been. 6/10