BBC Films/Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films/Cross Street Films/Focus Features/Universal Pictures
Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by Tim Bevan/Eric Fellner/Beeban Kidron/Tracey Seeward
Screenplay by Lee Hall
Based on “Victoria & Abdul” by Shrabani Basu
I have no idea if British cinema invented the period costume drama (that is a genre, right?) but they know how to do them, don’t they? I watch one of them, such as VICTORIA & ABDUL and I’m sucked in by the costuming, the sets, the richness of the language. The British got this kind of movie down to an art form, no doubt about it. Although I saw this on the big screen I had the feeling that I should have been watching this at home, on Channel 13’s “Masterpiece Theater.” What can I say? That’s where I usually get my British period costume drama fix.
Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench) is an elderly woman near the end of her reign and she knows it. Due to a number of illnesses and the reality of her advanced age she knows her time on Earth will soon run it’s course. Her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) makes no secret of his impatience with his mother taking her own sweet time to die as he can’t wait to take over the job of ruling the British Empire. Victoria has long ago given up pretending to care about the protocols and pomposity of her status. There’s a very funny scene with her at a lavish Golden Jubilee celebrating her fifty years of rule where she eats like…well, you know that one uncle or aunt you got who insists on eating everything in sight? Gobbling everything down as if they haven’t eaten for a week? Chews with their mouth open, burps like a moose and slurps soup as loudly as possible? Okay, that’s Queen Victoria. Naturally everybody at the really long dinner table (seriously, the thing is easily the length of a tennis court) has to ignore all this.
But this is just another way of Victoria showing how bored she is with her life. The only thing at the dinner that piques her interest is a rather handsome Indian Muslim named Abdul (Ali Fazal) who has been brought all the way from his native India to present Victoria with a ceremonial gold coin. His only qualification for this honor is that he’s tall. His partner in this, Mohammad (Adeel Ahktar in a scene stealing role) just wants to go back to India. He hates the British weather, the British food and in general, he hates the British period. But Abdul performs two gestures that awakens something in the elderly woman: he dares to look her in the eye and bends down to kiss her foot. And before you know it, Abdul has been elevated to a position in the royal household. He starts teaching Victoria Urdu. He assists her with her daily political correspondence. Which affects her personal secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) to such a degree of utter outrage that the guy has to start taking heart medicine. The Queen’s Physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins) gives him the pills with this advice; “Take one before you have to deal with him.”
Victoria actually creates a position for him when she learns that in his language the word for teacher is “Munshi.” She insists that her staff refer to him by this title. Over time he becomes her most personal confidant and advisor. She brings his wife and mother-in-law over from India. He is elevated to a position of power and influence that sends shock waves of resentment through Victoria’s staff. And I appreciate the writer and director not shying away from the racial angle. Victoria’s staff don’t like because he’s Indian, plain and simple. When Victoria announces her intention to bestow a knighthood on Abdul the horrified reaction of Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) sums up the feelings of the entire staff: “But..but..he’s Colored!”
But don’t get me wrong…this movie isn’t an in depth examination of the racial and political situation between Britain and India. In fact, for much of the movie’s running time it’s played mainly for laughs, devoting itself to the relationship between the unlikely soulmates. For Victoria, her friendship with Abdul alleviates her soul-crushing loneliness and awakens her spiritual side. For Abdul, he gets to live a whole lot better than he did back home in India.
Which actually was the part of the movie that really disturbed me. The more that Abdul is elevated, the lower Mohammad is treated. Despite the fact that they both came over from India as equals, Mohammad is reduced by being referred to and in fact treated by all as Abdul’s servant. Where Abdul is given a fine house to live in as a gift from the Queen, Mohammad lives in a miserable hovel, coughing up his lungs which react badly to the English weather. There’s a terrific scene where Bertie accuses Abdul of being a conniving piece of shit manipulating the Queen for his own ends to elevate his status. Victoria snaps back; “So how does that make him different from you?” Okay, she’s got a point but damn if Bertie doesn’t have one as well. As the old saying goes: It Takes One To Know One.
There’s solid performances from top to bottom, especially from Eddie Izzard who I never get enough of (I’ve never forgiven FX for canceling “The Riches”). Me telling you that Judi Dench turns in her usually great performance is as obvious as me telling you water is wet. Ali Fazal wisely doesn’t try to compete with his co-star when they’re on screen together but he knows when to turn on the charm when he has to and it works. Most of the really funny stuff comes from Adeel Ahktar but the members of Queen Victoria’s staff have their moments of comedic frustration in dealing with Abdul with Dr. Reid getting the biggest laugh when he finally just can’t take it anymore and snaps.
So should you see VICTORIA & ABDUL? If you like period dramas, sure. The settings are jaw-droppingly beautiful, the costuming magnificent and it’s an interesting lost story of history as this relationship between Victoria and Abdul was apparently suppressed by Queen Victoria’s family and has only been recently uncovered. Enjoy.