Victoria and Abdul (2017)

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Another impeccable British historical drama with another venerable icon of British cinema. What more can be said? Lots, actually. While Victoria and Abdul (2017) looks like more nostalgic self-indulgence wrapped in sumptuous period settings, 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.

Her Majesty Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has been monarch for 50 years and her boredom with royal occasions is palpable. Coincidence and luck leads to a lowly clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) travelling from India to present her with a medal in grateful recognition of British colonial rule. Court etiquette requires that one must never look at the Queen and to retreat backwards after addressing Her Majesty. When presenting the medal, the curious Abdul cannot resist a peep; their eyes meet, and Victoria is instantly charmed by the tall, good-looking Indian who appears so human in contrast to court toadies. She summons Abdul and soon he is her constant companion and mentor, much to the disgust of the racist lackeys who fawn for her favour. The relationship would last 15 years, during which time Victoria learnt about Indian language and customs. She developed a genuine regard for the nation over which she ruled as Empress of India.

While labelled a drama, the treatment is distinctly comedic. Court manners and customs are low-hanging fruit for mockery, and caricatures of court sycophants are all too easy to construct. But the humour masks the deeper layers of the story. Until she met Abdul, Victoria knew nothing of India and shared Britain’s official contempt for the ‘unruly land’ and its ‘ignorant masses’. Imperialism carried a divine right to rule over lesser humans and it was through Abdul’s influence that Victoria developed deeper sympathy for the nation and its problems. The relationship with Abdul is also one of the most liberating experiences of Victoria’s long reign and helped overcome the loneliness of royal isolation in her senior years. Judi Dench portrays this emotional transformation with extraordinary power: no living actress can match her imperious gaze.  Her face has become more transparently expressive over her long career and even a miniscule raising of an eyebrow can speak volumes. The new spring in an old lady’s step, the twinkle in her eyes, the firming of her voice, all tell of the universal pleasures of connecting with another human, irrespective of any age divide. While Ali Fazal shares star billing, his aura is inevitably overshadowed by Dench. His greatest contribution to the film is being able to portray ambivalence between being just another sycophant or an innocent with genuine fondness for the Queen.

Historians will no doubt finds things to dispute and that is their job. As cinema, however, this is as good as historical dramas get. The script has a contemporary feel that makes the dialogue relevant to many of the racial issues we face today. The filming alone makes the movie worth seeing, offering a delightful tour of grand palaces and glimpses of courtly life in 19th Century England. While the British have made many such films, it’s hard not to enjoy Victoria and Abdul.


Director:  Stephen Frears

Stars:  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, Olivia Willams