Victoria and Abdul (2017) Movie Review by John Walsh

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Lee Hall (screenplay by), Shrabani Basu (based on the book by)
Stars: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith

So I watched Victoria and Abdul the other day. I wasn’t expecting a great deal from this film. Of course, I was aware that Stephen Frears was at the helm of it and he’s a man with a history of directing good films centred on the British Monarchy. He directed ‘The Queen’ which starred Helen Mirren and this time he’s delving back further again to focus on Victoria.

I have a decidedly odd attraction to films of this nature. As a proud Scotsman of Irish descent, I am by no means a fan of the British Royal Family. On the contrary, I’m perplexed at the adulation showered upon them by their loyal ‘underlings’, and frankly, I struggle to understand the purpose they serve. But I do enjoy a good historical film that focuses on people of interest and say what you want about the British Monarchy, they certainly have had some interesting characters over their reign.

For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Kings Speech’, a fact that’s all the more remarkable given my disdainful indifference to Colin Firth, I also enjoyed ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Young Victoria’ wasn’t too bad either. So you see, I’m not blinkered into immediate prejudice despite on the surface, it being a dislikable subject. If it’s a good film then I’ll watch it and I’m pleased to say ‘Victoria and Abdul’ is a good film. It’s not a outstanding one, I’m sure there’s a few inaccuracies in there, but it’s an enjoyable period piece and Dench is spectacular in her return to the character.

It focuses on a newly unearthed part of history that was inexplicably erased and covered up for nigh on a century. Victoria’s family, it seems, weren’t a massive fan of her close relationship with the young Indian attendant Abdul Karim. A combination of jealousy, ignorance and racism created a festering atmosphere of intolerance that resulted in the poor chap being unceremoniously evicted and sent back to his home land shortly after the Queen’s death in 1901.

Her daughter Beatrice saw to it that all correspondence between the pair was burnt and their decade long relationship was forgotten. How very noble of her. That is until Shrabani Basu, an Indian journalist, stumbled upon an impressive bust of the mysterious Indian man, followed by several paintings during a visit in 2003 and subsequently requested some Urdu memoirs for inspection. Thus the close relationship was newly discovered and since has served as the inspiration behind this very film.

In terms of story, it’s character driven, dialogue heavy, very much an intimate affair throughout and, as the title should suggest, firmly focused on the queen and her Indian ‘Munshi’. I particularly enjoyed the way that Frears introduced the bemused looking character of Abdul whilst simultaneously highlighting the sycophantic curtness of the serving royal staff during the Golden Jubilee banquet in doing so. This made his innocence and laidback demeanour around Victoria all the more noticeable when it was so starkly contrasted against their pretentious and regimented aloofness.

Indeed, it was this innocence and the way he treated her as a human being, without any airs and graces, that apparently attracted her to him and helped solidify their bond. Victoria at this point was very much a lonely and isolated figure.

Following their first meeting, Victoria orders the young Indian be brought to her and integrates him into her staff, almost immediately giving him the ‘Munshi’ title and the film begins delving into the two characters budding friendship and past. The queen talks of losing her husband and the relationship with John Brown; whilst Abdul gives an account of his life back in India, his humble heritage and of his family traditions. He begins giving her Urdu lessons as her interest in the sub-continent grows whilst the snooping house staff stand behind the door aghast at the perceived inappropriateness of it all and the foreign ‘paupers’ intrusion.

That scene is a actually perfect visual metaphor of the entire film. Victoria is revitalised, has more of a maternal relationship with the Munshi than her own children, shuts them out in a sense and faces a growing torrent of intolerance among her underlings and family in doing so.

Dame Judi Dench is absolutely outstanding in this film. It’s not the first time she’s played Victoria, of course, having portrayed her in the 1997 release, Mrs. Brown. Her return is most definitely triumphant. I said it was character driven and Victoria is more prominent than any other. She imbues the role with a real multifaceted emotional performance, delivering moments of humour, sadness, poignancy and a few withering rebuttals of her son and staff. Dench has been nominated for more than a few awards and I’m sure she’ll be one of the nominees come the Oscars. It’s a strong category this year however and winning may prove to be a step too far.

As I mentioned earlier, their relationship was one that spanned a decade and at a mere 110 minutes long, it was always going to be impossible to shoehorn in every single historical moment they shared. It jumps about rather quickly. There’s trips to Scotland, Abdul’s family are invited over and there’s a few failed attempts at prying the two apart before the film enters its final stages with the impending death of Victoria. Abdul’s shockingly racist mistreatment is highlighted and no punches are pulled. He’s manhandled, treated with disdain and there’s even a minor uprising, with resignations threatened, from a staff that frankly lack the courage of their convictions.

Speaking of Abdul, some have criticised the portrayal of him in this film. They feel he was two dimensional, lacked any real development, was made to be too subservient and they also disliked the apparent whitewashing of certain aspects of the British Empires involvement in India. I sort of agree to an extent but I honestly didn’t think it was that bad. Perhaps they should be glad that he’s finally being recognised after so long. Ali Fazal was actually very decent. He had some good chemistry with Dench and the relationship felt genuine. Frears does indeed focus on Victoria more but that’s always going to be the case in a British film.

There’s not that many other noteworthy performances in this one. I honestly tend to associate Eddie Izzard more with being in drag and diving headlong into U.K. politics than acting. But he does do a reasonable job of playing the incredibly obnoxious and irritating figure of Edward VII. The likeness of the two is eerie. Now, I’m no historian and can’t vouch for the real mans personality, but it seems like they got that one right if my short research is anything to go by. Tim Piggott-Smith, Michael Gambon and Paul Higgins were also decent enough too without ever really impressing upon me that much.

I’ll give a brief mention to the visuals too which were stunning. The set design and costumes were utterly gorgeous and they did a great job of transporting the whole thing back to the late 1800s.

I don’t really need to bore you with the details of the ending because I already mentioned it in the necessary history lesson at the beginning. But I will anyway. Abdul ignores his close friends pleas to leave the country in order to stay by her side during the final moments and the is promptly chased out of the country shortly afterwards by that git Bertie (Edward VII). They appear to have forgotten Beatrice at this point, who played a large part in covering the relationship up. But then again, I didn’t even know she existed prior to doing research on the subject and I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people won’t care either.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same question I ask myself after every film. Did I enjoy watching the damn thing? And the answer in this case is most definitely. I’ve got a soft spot for a well made historical drama and this film surprisingly brought out a wide range of emotions. I found myself getting angry at the Munshi’s mistreatment, laughing at Victoria’s dry wit, her clear disdain of the sycophants that surrounded her and also applauding her stubborn insistence at elevating Abdul ever higher. You could also feel the sense of sadness in her character and the happiness at meeting someone she could confide in.

It’s not a perfect film by any means but I’d recommend giving this a watch for Judi Dench’s performance alone.

Rating: 3.5/5

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