“Victoria & Abdul” (2017)
Running Time: 112 minutes
Written by: Lee Hall
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Featuring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith and Adeel Akhtar
Queen Victoria: “Everyone I love has died and I just go on and on. What is the point?”
Abdul Karim: “Service, Your Majesty. We are here for a greater purpose.”
Twenty years after Judi Dench received her very first Oscar nomination for playing Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1998) comes a spiritual sequel in the Stephen Frears directed “Victoria & Abdul” (2017). As you would expect this film is built around the powerhouse performance of Judi Dench who shows no signs of slowing down, even rumors of another Oscar nomination for this role seem to be reliable. Although this film has at its core Dench, the supporting cast is nothing short of excellent, starting with relative newcomer Ali Fazal, a Bollywood star who announces his arrival as the Queen’s confidant, the titular Abdul. As you would expect Fazal’s character is marginalised by almost everyone he comes across, in fact he is ultimately a tragic figure.
There are many reasons that this is a film to search out, it illustrates not only the archaic way in which the upper class treated perceived lower classes, how England treated not only India but also their colonies, the waning power of the England itself, the treatment of foreigners, possibly the origins of Brexit, how a Queen in her 90s could be more forward thinking than any of her underlings as well as power , and how true power can be isolating as well as being a prison that few people can understand or relate to. This is actually a true story that was unknown until relatively recently but it is a welcome one that assists in the understanding of issues we still face today.
The film is centred around Abdul Karim, a young prison clerk from Agra, India, is instructed to travel to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 (four years after the death of John Brown in Mrs Brown) to present her with a mohur, which has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India.
The Queen, who is lonely and tired of her fawning courtiers, develops an interest in and later a friendship with Abdul. She spends time with him alone, and promotes him to become her Munshi as his guardian. She asks him to teach her Urdu and the Qur’an. When Victoria discovers that he is married, she invites his wife and mother-in-law to join him to England.
While Victoria treats Abdul as a son, his preferment is resented by her household and inner circle, including her son Bertie and the Prime Minister. The household plots to undermine their relationship, hoping that Abdul will be sent home. When Victoria embarrasses herself by recounting to the court the one-sided account of the Indian Mutiny that Abdul had told her, Victoria’s faith and trust in him are shaken and she decides he must go home. But the following day she changes her mind and asks him to stay.
Needless to say that from here the animosity between the rest of the staff and Abdul inflates to new heights, not only that but Bertie the Queens eldest son (as well as future King) seems to be terrified of the relationship between the Queen and Abdul to such an extent that is frankly frightening. This animosity from someone who is at the height of power in the late 1800s illustrates the way one person can have a detrimental effect on those around him. I will not spoil the film but it is amazing the lengths that some of the characters are willing to go to rid themselves of Abdul, as well as revealing their own inadequacies and prejudices.
As I have said with many of the high quality British movies released each year the casting is nothing short of absolutely superb, starting with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, reprising a role she was so successful in twenty years ago. There is nothing new to say about Dench as it has already been said so well by others for the majority of her distinguished career. Dench is as prolific an actor as there has ever been, she is in high demand, you can see why in her faultless performance in “Victoria & Abdul”, not only that but you can see she makes others better around her by letting them have their tine in the sun. The supporting cast led by Ali Fazal as Abdul is nothing short of incredible, as a character you must side with him from the off, thanks to his innate charm and personality that is not a problem. It is no mean feat then that Bertie played by Eddie Izzard, is a great antagonist (as he was in the this years underrated “Whiskey Galore” (2017)) who shines throughout, but it is in the closing minutes of the film that you see his real hatred of not only Abdul but the lower classes as well. The rest of the cast including the always-fantastic Adeel Akhtar (already scene stealing in “The Big Sick” (2017), but always memorable from “Four Lions” (2010)), the glorious Tim Pigott-Smith and Paul Higgins are all admirable supporting players. The only other actors to really highlight are Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar as Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting who steal scenes they are in, particularly a portion of the film where they re-enact (along with Abdul) a period of India’s history in front of an audience – just hilarious.
It is no coincidence that this is the fifth film that Dench has made with veteran director Stephen Frears who is a master of his domain. Frears who has made a career out of making stories that reflect some inner truth that exists within people or situations here is at his best. He has revelaed some of the worst as well as best parts of humanity in both his television work as well as his much-lauded film work as well. Not only that, but Frears has done something few directors of his age has done, that is to remain a vital as well as relevant director that is also extremely prolific. You can see in recent years his output from 2000 when he had the triple of “Fail Safe”, “Liam” and the now classic “High Fidelity” to now with “Victoria & Abdul” he has directed fifteen movies – many of them real classics. What Frears has accomplished with this new movie is to further demystify Royalty as well as the Crown itself, which is something that has been happening not only in film (with Frears own excellent “The Queen” (2005)) but also on television with the likes of “The Crown” (2016 – ) as well as “Victoria” (2016 – ). Of course the director as well as writer, Lee Hall, are also concerned with the decline of the English Empire in the face of growing resistance from their colonies (in this case the growing independence of India) as well as the growing independence of England’s own politics becoming more independent of the Crown. The resistance to all of this is of course Queen Victoria’s own son Bertie, who is fighting wars on multiple fronts, slowly losing which is one reason he was only King for a short amount of time – stress as well as living in the past will do that to a person.
“Victoria & Abdul” is simply an excellent film that embodies some of the greatest as well as worst traits of English society of the time. I thought it was excellent to see an elderly Queen admitting to many foibles but still willing to reach out to someone she did not know. as well as embracing an entirely foreign culture, not to appropriate it or minimize it but to attempt to understand it. This is something that many world leaders could learn from today as well as try to emulate – far too many times people try and dominate or win at culture wars. One of the many lessons in this film is that it is possible to have actual relations with foreigners as well as have mutual beneficial agreements, and tolerance for differences.
If it were up to the people that hated the idea of a relationship that exists in this movie then it would not exist, in fact it is only since 2010 that this story was even known by the general public which is a sad indictment of the times that it occurred in. It is with that knowledge that I recommend this movie highly, and would not be surprised if like Frears others films it features in next years Oscar race.
“Victoria & Abdul” is out now in cinemas.