The Bock’s Office: ‘Victoria & Abdul’ a sweet if overly simple look at history
When your life is full of pointless obligations, you’re likely to befriend the one person who expects nothing of you and shows gratitude. And, whether you believe every moment of it or not, “Victoria & Abdul” shows an unlikely friendship for the ages.
In 1887, young Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) has his life changed forever when he is tasked with being one of two men to travel to Great Britain for the offering of a ceremonial coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) as part of the regent’s golden jubilee after 50 years on the throne.
A voyage that takes months leads up to a presentation that is only meant to take minutes, though Abdul manages to make an impression on the queen, who has grown bored with the formalities of her life and the people around her.
Before long, not only is he taking up residence in the royal household, but he finds himself constantly in Victoria’s presence, first as a servant and becoming increasingly friendly with the monarch.
Her Royal Highness’s interest in the young man and his background is not well received by the rest of her court, whose indifference to Abdul’s presence soon develops into an outright hostility as they decide his presence is threatening the entire British empire.
Having portrayed the historical figure in “Mrs. Brown,” Dench makes a laudable return as the formidable woman who reigned for more than six decades, now in her twilight years and battling poor health and endless ennui.
The status as the most powerful person in the world may not have ever left her head or her waistline — the queen sets the eating pace in any formal dinners — but Victoria is shown as a ruler who can stay in touch with the salt of the earth folk far better than the people who maintain her kingdom.
Enter Fazal as Abdul, who keeps a zest for life even thousands of miles from home and delights in recounting tales of his homeland for the woman who holds the title of empress of India but has never been allowed to visit the subcontinent for fear of an assassination attempt.
That paranoia is no less pronounced even in Buckingham Palace as he takes on the role of Munchi — language teacher — as Abdul begins instructing the queen in Urdu to the consternation of everyone in her circle.
Michael Gambon never disappoints, even in minor parts, here making himself known as the humorless prime minister, Lord Salisbury. Still, it’s Eddie Izzard who’s the best at being the worst as Victoria’s eldest son, Bertie, the eventual Edward VII, portrayed as a pompous prat with no kind words for the woman who has stubbornly clung to life to keep him from being king and even fewer for Abdul, whom he dubs “the brown John Brown,” a reference to Victoria’s late consort following the death of Prince Albert.
Whether or not you want to see a romance in this story of unlikely friendship, there’s no missing the outrage that surrounds the title duo, some of which is understandable concern about the impropriety of their relationship and the rest just outright racism.
You have to hate someone pretty hard to neither know nor care if they are Hindu or Muslim.
To be fair, Abdul’s companion and fellow Indian servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) provides plenty of negativity as well with a festering hatred for Britain, its imperialism and most importantly its cold weather.
The witty script by Lee Hall is admittedly speculative given the limited historical details on Abdul, whose diary was discovered in 2010 to give more insight on the queen’s later life.
Cinematography by Danny Cohen is excellent with some shooting on location on the queen’s former haunts, and the direction by Stephen Frears is, as always, well-paced, though it’s easy to forget that this story spans 14 years and much about the world changes in that time despite few differences within the royal walls. One would hope that Victoria’s greatest worries each day were more complicated than being pulled out of bed and her doctor (Paul Higgins) pestering her about her movements.
Is the royal colon really that big a concern?
The disappointment of “Victoria & Abdul” is that it strives to be a message movie without making much of an attempt at a moral even though there’s no missing its finer points. Its look at true events may be sanitized and glossed over, but with that trademark British refinement and Dench’s typically majestic acting, it’s likely you’ll apologize before they will.