Victoria & Abdul

31victoriaandabdulIs 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.

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20 thoughts on “Victoria & Abdul

  1. Christopher

    The sad thing is we probably know very little about Abdul’s background because so little of it was recorded at the time–although the filmmakers could have extrapolated.
    And the funny thing is this is at least the second time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria in an unlikely relationship. The other one is Her Majesty Mrs. Brown in which Billy Connolly plays a Scotsman who helps her after the death of her husband. He’s also subjected to a lot of prejudice.

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    1. Jay

      Yes, we heard quite a lot about Mr Brown in the movie.

      And actually, the only stuff we do know about Abdul comes from him – his diaries were discovered in 2010. The palace deported him and expunged him from the records as soon as she died.

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  2. Birgit

    Here is one lady who has hit it big when she is much older. I love Judi Dench and would love to see her play the Queen again and in a story that sounds quite good.

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  3. Jay

    Great review hun.
    It’s a lot of fun to see the old sourpuss express feeling trapped by her crown – and then to have her horizons broadened by this exotic stranger. If only people had known how much she embraced not only him but his teachings. Would impact might this have had?

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  4. Lloyd Marken

    Why did he put up with it? Because he understood the world he was living in. His decisions at the end are less easy to answer. It’s been interesting to read different people’s reactions. We saw it with a bunch of old white Aussies at a preview screening and we lapped it up. There were a couple of bits where I began to wonder about the deeper issues of race but the film glosses over them. Judi Dench is brilliant in it though as you so rightly pointed out.

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    1. Sean Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t wonder why he put up with the racism, exactly, but rather why he fought to stay in England despite (a) being treated so miserably by everyone around him; and (b) when he had a family back in India. He could have left at any time but seemed to seek out the Queen’s favour and then was glad to stay at her request. I don’t think Abdul needed to be as dour as his compatriot but what is in this suffering for him?

      You’re right about the decisions at the end being even more baffling but I could not figure out why he tried so hard to be there in the first place, unless of course he was trying to gain something. The film seems to go to great lengths to lead us away from that conclusion but doesn’t provide any other motivation for his actions.

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  5. CineMuseFilms

    Oh Sean; why art thou so harsh? I know this is more nostalgic self-indulgence wrapped in sumptuous period settings, but it is also a cutting critique of British colonialism, a satire on aristocratic pomposity, but most of all, a bitter-sweet comedic story about the loneliness of being a Queen. I loved it.

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  6. thedanny1972

    Very nice review.Not quite what i would call a great movie but a very good one. Judi dench was astonshingly good. I almost ugly cried towards the end. I loved the go ahead and quit assholes scene.

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