Is there anything more awkward than finding out the guy you recruited as a token Hindu is actually Muslim? There is, actually – it’s far more awkward when the guy you literally shipped from India as a parlour trick starts getting special attention from the Queen, more attention than you and all your fellow white sycophants combined. The worst part? He doesn’t even seem to be trying to play your game, yet he’s still beating all of you at it.
Victoria & Abdul tells the (mostly) true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, the former being the head of the Empire that oppressed India for nearly 100 years, and the latter being the guy who was sent on a two month boat ride to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen.
Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall do their best to find humour both in Victoria’s self-involvement and in the shockingly blatant racism that Abdul is subjected to at every turn. That approach works very well, mainly because of the strong performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the titular roles. Dench’s Victoria is smart and self-aware even in her self-indulgence and stubbornness, and Fazal’s Abdul is such a capable, charismatic individual that at every turn he exposes the ridiculousness of the hate directed toward him. Perhaps in another hundred years our great-grandchildren will find today’s racial turmoil similarly humourous, ideally without seeing similarities to their time’s headlines. One can only hope.
One shortcoming, though, is that we are left to guess at Abdul’s motivations. Presumably, he would rather put up with cold, prejudiced England than live in impoverished, subjugated India, but we don’t ever see his home life so never really know why he puts up with being treated like dirt by every white character other than the Queen. Even so, Abdul is still a character I invested in despite knowing so little about him.
Beyond the stellar core performances, Victoria & Abdul is fairly by-the-numbers, playing out exactly as it must. There are no narrative surprises here but despite its predictability, this film kept me invested from start to finish, and that’s not an easy task for a 9 a.m. screening five days into a film festival!
Victoria & Abdul likely won’t end up in my top tier of films from Venice but I’m glad I saw it, especially for Oscar pool purposes – Dench should be a strong contender for Best Actress. And while the rest of the film doesn’t match the high standard that Dench sets, it’s an entertaining film that you won’t regret watching.