In 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee, recognizing fifty years as ruler of the British Empire. As part of the festivities, two “Hindoo” gentlemen were plucked out of their lives in India and brought to England dressed to present her with a ceremonial coin in recognition of her title as Empress of India. It’s a grand metaphor for colonialism, as these two men are but bit players forced to participate in a story written by someone else. Their assigned roles reinforce stereotypes about their actual heritage (including the silly Orientalist costumes they must wear) and require them to act in ways that mimic the domination of Britain over India (they are instructed never to look directly at the Queen, for instance, and to leave her presence by backing up rather than turning their backs to her).
One of the Indian men, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, who played Kumali Nanjiani’s older brother in The Big Sick), just wants to get it over with so he can return home. The other, Abdul (Bollywood star Ali Fazal), is eager to embrace this unexpected opportunity (back home, he was a low-level prison clerk). He catches the eye of Victoria (Judi Dench), who is weary life at court and life in general, and before long he has become a sort of tutor or “munshi” to the Queen. As such, he teaches her about his native land and culture, including the fact that he and Abdul are Moslems, not Hindus, and that their native language is Urdu, not Hindi (both distinctions are utterly lost on the other members of the court). At the same time, Abdul provides Victoria with rare moments of real human contact in a life otherwise consumed by endless ceremonies and the perpetual petty squabbles of courtiers.
Victoria and Abdul is ultimately a film about power at both the macro (British Empire) and micro (British court) levels. Adbul is a bit of an opportunist, to be sure, but so is nearly everyone else around the Queen. She enjoys Abdul’s company—it doesn’t hurt that he is tall and handsome, of course, but he’s also a gentle and dignified soul—and is genuinely interested in learning more about India. The other members of the court can’t stand Abdul, of course, particularly after Victoria makes his status more formal. The leaders of the anti-Abdul pack are Victoria’s grandson Bertie (Eddie Izzard, chewing up all the scenery), who is just waiting for her to die so he can become George V, and the Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams, who conveys more with her face than most actors could with pages and pages of lines). They, along with many others in the Queen’s inner circle, are fundamentally offended that a dark-skinned colonial commoner should receive the Queen’s attention and favor, which they think should be distributed entirely among themselves. It’s not as if they’re going to starve or will have to dress in rags and tatters, of course, but when you concern yourself with competition in a very narrow sphere, every tiny signal takes on an outsized significance. You don’t have to be a courtier to recognize this pattern—anyone who’s worked in academia will be familiar with it, for instance.
I’m up for any movie with Judi Dench in it, and she outdoes herself in this one, capturing the weariness of the aging queen (who ruled from 1837 to 1901, the longest reign by any British monarch until Elizabeth II) as well as her determination and strength of character. Now 82, Dench has no problem letting the camera shoot right up her nostrils, as if to say—“Yes I’m old. So what?” That same attitude enlivens her portrayal of Victoria, who despite her world-weariness is more than capable of swatting down courtiers and family members when they seek to wield power not rightfully theirs. The supporting roles are all well acted, including, besides those already mentioned, Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Paul Higgins as the Queen’s personal physician, and Fenella Woolgar as a somewhat awkward lady in waiting. Stephen Frears’ direction is excellent, and you also get the usual pleasures of a heritage film, including splendid cinematography (Danny Cohen) and costume design (Consolata Boyle), as well as travelogue-worthy use of locations in England, Scotland, and India.
Victoria and Abdul is set during the glory years of the British Empire (on which the sun never set, etc. etc.), but doesn’t entirely endorse the colonial project. The most explicit example of this resistance is a brief speech made by Mohammed, who takes the opportunity to show that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye. The royal family and courtiers are also shown engaging in reprehensible behavior for no reason other than that they know they will get away with it, so your reaction after seeing this film is less likely to be nostalgia for the old order and more likely to be relief that those days are gone.
If you’re the kind of person who can’t get past the fact of colonialism in the world of this film, you should give it a miss. (I do have to wonder how many films you can watch if you’re going to take such an absolutist stance on ethical issues, however—for instance, do you also refuse to watch films set in a period or region in which the subjugation of women is embedded in law?) For everyone else, if you’re up for a splendid period film with sharp acting performances that manages to criticize the British Empire while also accepting it as a fact of life, you should find much to enjoy in Victoria and Abdul. | Sarah Boslaugh