TIFF FILM REVIEW: A Light-Hearted Royal Comedy With Modern Day Reverbrations, VICTORIA & ABDUL
The long-reigning monarch Queen Victoria has been the subject of many a cinematic treatment, including by Dame Judi Dench, who once more dons the royal garbs in the upcoming film Victoria & Abdul. Although the subject matter suggests seriousness, the movie would probably best be described as a rom-com were it not for the half-a-century or so age difference between the two leads, not to mention because of the asexual nature of the entire escapade.
Towards the latter years of her long tenure, Victoria is exasperated with the stiff upper lip society she helped augur, the loneliness of palace life, and the simultaneous lack of privacy in her endeavors. Cue the violins, I know. As her jubilee as regent approaches, plans are made to present her with a gift from the Empire’s possession in India, from whence a dashing young Muslim Indian named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is plucked to do the honors. Thus is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The screenplay does not satisfactorily explain why the otherwise ornery Queen takes an initial liking to the young man (and I suspect that the book off of which the movie is based is not quite sure either, given the dearth of historical record), but such trivial details are quickly forgotten as the two build a lasting companionship. Abdul becomes the Queen’s unlikely “moonchy” or spiritual leader, teaching her Urdu as well as the Quran, while she becomes her patron, providing him comfort and stature and even some royal decorations.
Predictably, this does not sit well with the Royal Court and Family, led by the Queen’s eldest son Bertie, the future King Edward VI (Eddie Izzard). Even Prime Minister Salisbury (Michael Gambon) does not want Royal shenanigans interfering with British politics. Part of the problem, naturally, is that the man is an Indian, a servant which the elitist and, let’s say “race conscious,” Brits of the time were preternaturally predisposed again. The fact that he is a Muslim, well, that is just icing on the shite cake.
You can pretty much write out the rest of the film in your head and you’d likely hit it more or less on the spot. The court conspires, to varying degrees of success, against the innocent Abdul, whom the Queen grows more obstinate in protecting as her infatuation with the prohibitive, different culture he represents grows. Nothing particularly interesting happens but nothing needs to. Let’s face it, our fascination with royalty, particularly British Monarchs, is insatiable, and the costume porn keeps churning well along with sufficient laughs to keep you amused for the respectable run-time.
The film is directed by Stephen Frears, who a few years back led Ms. Dench in the Oscar-nominated Philomena and is also responsible for royalty movies like The Queen. Victoria & Abdul is a much less ambitious exercise, lacking the sweeping emotional grandeur of Philomena or the biting analytical perceptiveness of The Queen. It is instead a lithe mixture of the two, and it may as well could be a story of a rich old lady currying favor for a poor kid of the wrong class and color, with a bunch of grumpy relatives, old and young, scrambling so that they may not lose position. This one just happens to be Victoria, Queen of England.
But despite its obvious inside-the-box, non-threatening and non-challenging nature, Victoria & Abdul is a good movie because it makes you laugh, at least if, as I am, you are into seeing flummoxed Brits being bossed around by Judi Dench. And it may even make you tear up a bit, as an actress of her abilities inevitably sells you the sincerity of the platonic emotional connection between the elderly monarch and the aspiring youth. Ali Fazal himself holds his own well side-by-side with the acting titan, even if at times he verges into racially problematic portrayals of Abdul.
The entire story would be little more than a quaint exploration of a little-known tale (which would be good enough as long as movies go these days), were it not for the fact that some of the classist, anti-Muslim invective that the film superficially explores were not so urgently relevant, some 130 years later until today. Though the film never preaches beyond its unambitious borders, it serves then too, as a gentle if unwelcome reminder of how far we’ve come—and how little as well.