Even Dame Judi can’t save this Royalist fantasy of exotic servant-hood
Dame Judi Dench returns to her role as Queen Victoria, first debuted in John Madden’s Mrs Brown in 1997, and brings another unlikely friendship to our screens. Though this time not between a Queen and a Scottish commoner, but a weary ruler and her devoted Indian servant.
Victoria and Abdul sees Stephen Frears take on the final years of Queen Victoria’s life, portraying a depressed and haggard old woman who becomes transformed and bedazzled by a charming, young, Indian clerk, played by Ali Fazal. Victoria develops an obsessive fascination with Indian-Muslim culture, but Frears’ well-meaning period flick has a plain disregard for the wider international issues that shaped this complicit relationship with hierarchy, failing altogether to deliver a kind of resolution with which you could feel completely comfortable.
Dame Judi Dench is, as ever, wonderful at playing the sultry, self-righteous, figure of authority. But even her performance is not enough to save this glorification of servitude and grovelling, which is at best disguised as some sort of aspirational, unexpected friendship, defying all odds and taboos.
A stellar cast and strange moments of exaggerated comedy provided some light relief; Eddie Izzard playing stuffy Prince Bertie was the convincing villain of the story, and Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury gave some humorous one-liners, but the comedy was often nonsensical, and simply added to the overall feeling of discomfort. I would question how appropriate and credible it was to include Abdul’s joke, “at least I think that’s the right way around!” when introducing his wife and mother-in-law, who were both wearing identical burqas.
At first, some of the exaggerated caricatures of pompous English aristocracy seemed like a promising satire, but this film was far from a critique or commentary. I think it was just trying to be ‘cute’. What it became instead was a validation of colonial servitude, and seems to absolve Queen Victoria of any responsibility.
It did, at times, try its best to portray some taboos being defied. The way Abdul’s wife slowly removes her burqa in front of the Queen to reveal a stunning, shimmery, colourful dress and decorated face, is a quietly beautiful moment; this celebration and understanding of this aspect of Muslim culture felt like something actually quite remarkable, in this otherwise unremarkable film. Victoria’s fascination with Indian-Muslim culture was a perhaps refreshing take on the era, but does little to erase the wider tensions of British rule in India — something I could not get out of my head for the entire hour and 52 minutes.
This film would (rightly) not have had the same capacity for charm and allure had the story been about a snooty king who develops a lustful and endearing fascination for an ‘exotic’ female servant. That said, even with the roles reversed, Victoria and Abdul falls short of the clearly attempted and anticipated appeal.
The final scene is nearly as baffling as trying to understand why someone fought to tell this story in the first place. In a moment — I imagine — intended to hit hard with poignant and emotional resolution, Abdul leans down and kisses the foot of a towering statue of Queen Victoria. As the camera zooms out, we see that the statue resides in the gardens near the Taj Mahal; Victoria got her wish to go after all.
As this was a story much more about Victoria’s lonely and depressed final years, and her lust for life resurrected by her Indian servant, it felt slightly redundant and morally obligated when the end credits explained “India gained independence from Britain in 1947.” Almost half a century after poor Abdul was whispering “Good morning” to a statue of the Queen of England.
Victoria and Abdul tries to be charming, endearing and heartfelt, but its emphasis on the Queen’s boisterous demands, inescapable loneliness, and frustration with the advisers surrounding her left little dialogue and focus on Abdul, who came across as a devoted, unquestioning servant. The Queen became his “most special person” for reasons never really explained. There’s probably not much truth to be found here, about which the film is fairly honest. It had some lovely moments and gave some small laughs, but I doubt, however, that this was a story worth telling.