Queen Victoria, one of the longest serving monarchs, is posthumously in the limelight, this time through the movie Victoria and Abdul. The biopic focuses on the platonic relationship that the queen had with a servant, Abdul Karim.
While the movie is broadly based on the pair’s relationship, the disclaimer that appears at the beginning qualifies the story is based mostly on fact, which implies some of the elements in the film have are subject to artistic licence.
We are introduced to the queen at the dinner table. The dinner is in commemoration of her golden jubilee.Two Indian men have been sent by the Indian empire, of which she is empress, to present her with a ceremonial coin marking the milestone.The men were to become her servants.
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is clad for most of the film in the all-black that had become synonymous with her after the death of her beloved Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1861.
At the dinner she consumes several courses that are presented to her in an un-queenly manner. The queen sports the expression of a woman bored with her existence.
This is the first comedy gold in the film, where Victoria begins eating meal after meal in an effort to speed up the process.
This throws her guests, mostly other men and women of nobility, for a loop. It’s either they match her eating speed, or they run the risk of never eating any food.
The Indian servants, Abdul, played by Bollywood heartthrob Ali Fazal and Mohammed, played by British actor Adeel Akhtar, are seen being given strict instructions by some of the queen’s men to avoid eye contact, present the coin and walk away.
Abdul, entrusted with the responsibility, seems to ignore these instructions and looks the queen in the eye. They share something of a moment. The interaction between Mohammed and Abdul is one of a bromance, with Mohammed making it known in their interactions that he is not pleased to be here.
As the relationship develops, he acts as the voice of reason which aims to remind Abdul why they’re there in the first place.
He also highlights that the British Monarch is in a rather precarious position after the mutiny of 1857, by way of reminder to Abdul to not get comfortable.
As expected, as the relationship between the queen and the servant grows, so does the discontent in the household.
The queen promotes Abdul to being her monshi, her teacher, and he begins teaching her Urdu, sharing with her lessons from the Qur’an and telling her about mango chutney and the story of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal.
She also tells him of some of her most sensitive moments. A notable moment is when she cries to him that being the queen is like being imprisoned, and she feels alone as the people she was once close to have died.
What the film does beautifully is poke fun at the inner workings of the royal palace, and the rather racist response to Abdul by the royal household.
What the film doesn’t do too well, in the almost two hours of its running time, is sufficiently address the tensions that existed on the ground in India as a result of the country being a colony of Britain.
There is general mention that is made to these tensions, such as Abdul’s lie to the queen about the reason behind the mutiny, the sentiment on the ground about the monarchy.
Mohammed’s response to Bertie, Prince of Wales, Victoria’s son and immediate successor (Eddie Izzard) and Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), the queen’s secretary, when they come to him to help them dig into Abdul’s life for scandal - and the queen explaining that she cannot travel to India for fears of being assassinated.
With the artistic licence taken by the film, one would have expected more of an effort in this regard.
It’s a fairly happy-go-lucky film, and it is meant to get you laughing.
It does, however, leave a lot to be desired in its tackling of the dramatic aspects of the film. It also casts a grey area on the relationship between the queen and Abdul, with it starting off seemingly as a romantic attraction and going back to being more platonic and familial by the end.
The differences, in class, race and religion between the two are explored at a very superficial level.
Dench is comfortable in her role as the queen, quite believable as well, possibly due to her playing the role of queen at another point in
her career. Fazal also seems to carry Abdul well, and the chemistry between the two actors is good.
If anything, the film is important because it tells the story of Abdul, which in the towering history of the queen could have run the risk of being forgotten.