By Karen Gordon
At its essence, the recent TIFF feature and current release Victoria and Abdul can be seen as a story about how true friendship can fuel excitement over life’s possibilities.
But in this case, the Victoria in question is Queen Victoria, Queen of England and of the British Empire that included Hindustan, aka India. And the problems wrought by colonialism are problematic to the friendship equation, to say the least, and at times to the narrative.
The movie is based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu, and her discovery of a relationship between Her Majesty and a Muslim commoner named Abdul Karim.
It’s 1887, two Indian men, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel to London to present a coin to the Queen as part of her Jubilee year. From the get-go we get a sense of the way the British view these subjects. They haven’t been chosen because they’re special. Abdul, a clerk, is picked because he’s tall. Mohammed, is a last-minute replacement after “the other tall one” fell off a ladder and couldn’t travel. The two men arrive in London and are outfitted in faux Hindustani outfits by the Royal Tailor. When they point out that traditional outfit doesn’t include a sash, he dismisses them, saying that the sashes make their outfits look more authentic to the British imagination.
The two men are astounded at what they see. Mohammed, in particular, thinks the Brits with their fondness for certain kinds of food and the politics of colonialism are barbarians.
The two are rushed through a mystifying ceremony where they are to deliver the coin to the Queen on a tray, never making eye contact and then backing out of the room, at which point they are set to make the return voyage to home.
Except that Abdul’s natural excitement seems to get the better of him. He makes eye contact with the Queen and smiles at her. Up until now, we’ve only seen Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) as either half-dead or bored to the point of death. A nice change here.
She finds Abdul handsome, and commands that he and Mohammad stay to be her personal footmen through her Jubilee year. Abdul is invited into her office and the two begin a friendship. He teaches her Urdu, reveals that he is Muslim, not Hindu as the court originally thought, and seems to take interest in her. Her husband has been dead for many years and she is surrounded by people who assist and question her about her most intimate functions, but who don’t appear to have much affection for the human being under the crown.
And Abdul with his courtly manners, is full of stories and lessons for her. She commands that the court consider him her ‘munshi’ or teacher. As she tells him, she’s desperately lonely. He’s filling a gap for her. And as the story goes on, he benefits greatly from being her constant companion.
Their friendship is problematic for the court. Her fondness for Abdul and his role in her life are outside the norms of propriety. And they supersede her relationships with everyone - including her son and heir Bertie, played by an exasperated Eddie Izzard. Is this exclusive friendship on the level, or a sign of her decline? Besides “The Munshi” is s uncontrollable. He’s foreign. He’s brown. Could it be worse?
Hall and Frears play a lot of this as gentle comedy of manners. The elderly Queen asserts herself as a monarch does.
The court obeys but is exasperated at the lengths she goes to to accommodate this stranger and his strange customs. Away from her, they gossip and plot rebellion.
And as for Abdul, is he playing on the Queen for all of the benefits he gets from her affection for him? Or is he a simple man who has found someone to serve and finds profound joy in it?
That enigma could be seen as a flaw in the movie. Dramatically, the secondary Mohammed makes a better character. He has come to England against his will. He hates his colonial masters and almost everything about Britain, from its manners to its food and its weather. Indeed, he expresses his contempt for Colonial England to his British employers in a scene that ends up being a dramatic highlight of the film.
As for Abdul? He barely seems to notice. The movie leaves his views on the subject a blank. As time goes on, we find out that there are some real issues with him, but again the film raises and then drops them, leaving a big hole in the story. It’s an omission of character that unfortunately undermines the movie somewhat.
C’est dommage. Other than that, Victoria and Abdul is a beautiful looking costume drama with a dream cast. It may not be much of a surprise that Dame Judi Dench turns in another absolutely beautiful performance. But it is always joy to watch her in action.
And the actors in the British court including Tim Piggott-Smith, in his final role, Michael Gambon, Olivia Coleman, Fenella Woolgar and Paul Higgins, add to the fun.
Victoria and Abdul. Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Lee Hall from the novel by Shrabani Basu. Starring Ali Fazal, Judi Dench and Adeel Akhtar. Playing at Cineplex Odeon Varsity and VIP Cinemas.