Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.
Director Stephen Frears’ film about the aged Queen Victoria and her boot licking (literally!) Indian servant takes me back quite a few years. When I was a boy I was thrilled by the exploits of the British heroes and their loyal water boy in Gung Din and British soldiers in The Drum, and Lives of the Bengal Lancers. Then I entered my teen years and discovered Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement, thereby revealing the support of imperialism in movies and novels of the times and that I had been rooting for the wrong side. It seems as if Victoria and Abdul was made back in the 30’s also.
The film begins in the late 1880’s as we see a host of servants attending a bulky woman in her bedroom. As they dress her, her secretary reads aloud the day’s schedule. At last we see her face, that of Judy Dench, again assuming the role she played so well in John Madden’s 1997 film Mrs. Brown. The events of that film transpired about 20 years earlier when Victoria was so depressed by the untimely death of her beloved consort Prince Albert. It was easier to accept that film because there was little reference to Britain’s forceful rule over its subject nations around the world.
Meanwhile, in the land of the British Raj Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) works at a prison office in the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. His job is to record the names of prisoners in a ledger. He is plucked from this lowly job for a special duty. It is the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen, and a commemorative coin has been struck in her honor. Because of his height he has been selected to travel to London and present the coin, along with the shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar). The latter seems to be in the film for comedic effect, and to express the only criticism of British rule that we hear.
Decked out in specially designed scarlet uniforms, the pair are sternly warned not to look the Queen in the face. At the extravagant banquet the bored Queen eats the various courses so rapidly that most of the other diners are but halfway finished when the servants remove their dishes to make way for the next course. Queen Victoria, despite the presence of the hundred or more guests, frequently dozes off. When the Indians present the coin, Abdul forgets his instructions, and the Royal and the commoner look into each other’s eyes.
The Indians are about ready to travel back to their land when a lackey arrives with the order for them to return to the palace. Commenting how handsome Abdul is, Queen Victoria has appointed them to be her footmen. It is at their second meeting that Abdul drops to the ground and astonishes everyone by kissing the royal feet. From thenceforth the film seems to be a sequel to Mrs. Brown, the Queen even mentioning him when she talks with Abdul as they visit her Scottish residence Balmoral Castle.
As with the earlier servant John Brown, Abdul infuses new life into the lonely Queen who is still lamenting the loss of her husband. Telling her that he is a writer from a noble family, Abdul rises in rank as they grow closer. He becomes her “Munshi,” teaching her to read and write Urdu and giving her a false version of the infamous Mutiny.
It is a bit surprising that neither she nor her advisors are aware that the Indians are not “Hindoos,” but Muslims—didn’t anybody take notice that one of them was named “Mohammed”? Also, it is a bit strange that the Queen can be so easily misled by Abdul about the nature of the Indian Mutiny, for it occurred during her reign when she was more actively engaged in governing than now—but then, writer Lee Hall did say at the beginning, “Based on a true story, mostly,” much to the amusement of the audience.
There is quite a throne-room full of opponents to this unusual friendship, led by the Queen’s son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) and Henry Ponsberry (Tim Pigott-Smith), head of the palace household. Aided by the ladies in waiting, they contrive to unmask Abdul’s true background, proving both his deception concerning the Muslim leadership of the Mutiny and revealing that he is infected with gonorrhea. The Queen brushes aside such revelations, and, once she gets over the surprise that Abdul is married, even brings over his wife, son, and mother-in-law.
But the one thing even the Queen has no power over is her advanced age and impending death, which will bring the frustrated Bertie into power, and thus able to banish Abdul from the country.
The film could be seen as a warm tale of friendship across culture, age, religion, and race, were it not for its ignoring of facts. Its depiction of the Empress of India being so ignorant of history and being free from the racism that gripped almost everyone else at the time makes it appear that the filmmakers’ have a contempt for the intelligence of the audience. That Abdul is somewhat of a charming opportunistic rogue is glossed over. Indeed his part is underwritten–a few scenes showing him at prayer (he supposedly is a Muslim, but we never see him living out his religion) and talking with his wife and son would help us understand him better.
I was thinking that at that time, toward the end of her life in 1901, Gandhi had come to South Africa where he would uncover and publicize the racism and brutality of whites. True, his view of the British Raj does find expression in Abdul’s fellow servant Mohammed who complains that the British are “the exploiters of a quarter of mankind,” but his character is played for laughs rather than to provide serious commentary. There can be no question that Dame Judith turns in again another riveting performance as the Queen, but it is not enough to raise the film above its level of light entertainment that is as misleading as it is amusing.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.