Victoria and Abdul
During the final years of her reign, Queen Victoria develops an unorthodox friendship with an Indian servant, which threatens the status quo within the royal household.
Some scenes feature Urdu or Hindi with English subtitles.
1 hour 52 minutes
September 22, 2017
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Lee Hall. Based on the book by Shrabani Basu.
Composer: Thomas Newman
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon
Genre: Drama, Biography, History
The second time might be the charm for Judi Dench. Victoria and Abdul has only just graced cinemas in the United States, though that doesn’t stop journalists from predicting an Oscar grab for the octogenarian. While presumptuous, especially considering we are only really just starting the race towards the next Academy Awards, it’s a safe bet. The last time Dench played Queen Victoria was in Mrs. Brown, where she was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Indeed, her only Oscar win to date was as Queen Elizabeth in a supporting role. It seems royalty suits her!
While most of the buzz surrounding this film revolves around the career of the leading lady, it would be a cinematic crime to ignore the talents of director Stephen Frears. He has brought us the likes of High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons, and Florence Foster Jenkins. While the riveting yet tragic true tale of Philomena didn’t score Judi Dench an Oscar last time, his film The Queen certainly helped Helen Mirren clasp a hand around that heavy golden statuette. So it’s no wonder the critics are eyeing Victoria and Abdul so fervently – Stephen Frears and Judi Dench are a combination to the feared in the upcoming Oscar race!
Violence/Scary Images: One man begins to choke another, though it’s more to scare the victim as opposed to a murder attempt. One character coughs up a palm full of blood due to illness.
Language/Crude Humor: Only minor swear words or phrases are spoken, such as d*ck, though it is in context. The Lord’s name is used in vain once. Bowel movements and sexual health are discussed a few times during the course of the movie.
Drug/Alcohol References: Wine is served during the banquets and social occasions in the film, but no character is shown to be intoxicated.
Spiritual Content: Abdul is a Muslim and openly shares his faith, quoting the Quran two or three times. The film explores a bit of the Islamic culture as well. It is the main source of tension in the story, as the Queen is the head of the Church of England. Yet the film remains relatively light on the topic.
Sexual Content: A man’s naked upper thigh is seen. Muslim women are seen taking off their burka.
Other Negative Content: Racism and prejudice towards Indians and Muslims is prominent in this film. Though while it is depicted, it is frequently condemned, and the movie, therefore, does not promote this behavior or viewpoint.
Positive Content: While there may be some romantic undertones, this film shows a friendship that ignores religious, class, age, and gender boundaries. It is simply one human enjoying life with another.
Victoria and Abdul is a historically cheeky look at a friendship that knows no bounds. It is “mostly” based off a true story, as the opening credits claim, giving the audience a little wink as if to say this is a tale that isn’t going to take itself too seriously. We are then whisked into the past, both to Agra and Windsor, bearing witness to a flurry of aristocratic ceremonies and sensibilities, and our poor main characters that have been hurled amongst England’s almost religious devotion to maintaining the status quo. The editing works at a brisk pace. There are snippets of excitement, caution, redundancy, and boredom, as Abdul naïvely enters the world that an elderly Queen Victoria tiredly presides. It all builds and builds to a delightfully simple moment… when Victoria’s weary gaze finally meets Abdul’s youthfully optimistic stare.
The film’s title finally graces the screen. It’s odd to see it so late in the movie, though it’s ultimately a wonderful choice, placed after a perfectly pivotal point in the lives of both of the titular characters. A smile crept across my face and it didn’t leave until the final credits rolled. A sneaky, smitten little grin that I couldn’t remove even if I tried. You know the expression that I mean, and if you don’t, then I recommend you watch the film to experience it too.
Truth be told, this is less of a historical film and instead falls more within the comedy of manners and romance genres. It’s as though a (good) fanfiction writer has grabbed two real-life figures and written a wonderful tale about companionship, with little interest in creating a faithful adaptation. It’s less The Queen and more in the realm of Pride and Prejudice. That’s not to say that Victoria and Abdul is wildly inaccurate, but rather it’s not the focus of the movie, and if you’re a stickler for facts rather than characterization, then this film may only prove to infuriate you.
There’s not much to say about Judi Dench that hasn’t already been said the world over. She’s a delight to watch as always. I feel she stretched herself more in Philomena, but she still delivers a wonderful performance as the cantankerous Queen Victoria. Judi Dench has had a marvelous career, is adored by many in the industry, and I have no doubt she’ll be a strong contender for Best Actress at the next Academy Awards.
In this film, she is a prisoner of her own making. It’s reminiscent of our childhood prince and princess type films where the royal figure laments how they never have any fun, or explore the world, and have to live up to everyone’s expectations. It’s the same for this rendition of Queen Victoria, though she’s too old to run away like a petulant child, and legitimately world-weary and lonely in a land that prefers upholding etiquette to connecting to another human being.
Then enters Abdul; a Muslim prison worker that receives the ‘honor’ of presenting Queen Victoria – the Empress of India – with a coin, all because he simply looks the part. It’s merely a politically appeasing gesture to ensure the goodwill between colonies, but Abdul is completely smitten by the idea that he gets to serve his queen. It’s an attitude not shared by anyone else in the royal household, as it seems the others work within the Queen’s presence not out of enjoyment, but rather to improve their own class position.
It’s a shame that Ali Fazal’s portrayal of Abdul will be mostly overshadowed by Judi Dench’s fame. He is absolutely brilliant. Abdul brings a light into this story that is so beautiful that it wakes Queen Victoria out of her mundane routine. It’s so obvious what the monarch sees in him, that it’s easy for the audience to take the Queen’s side when the rest of the cast doesn’t. He is effectively the cliché manic pixie dream boy; I did not expect to see that archetype upon entering the cinema, but I found his presence highly enjoyable nonetheless.
Queen Victoria adores his authenticity and innocence; a soul uncorrupted by the bureaucracy that smothers her life. In return, Abdul adores the fact that he can serve someone he holds in high esteem, by sharing his passions and his culture with someone who is keen to learn. Judi Dench and Ali Fazal have wonderful chemistry together. Of course, that begs the question as to whether this was a romantic affair?
While Victoria and Abdul is structured similarly to a romance, it would be disingenuous to say that they were in love. Rather they shared a different kind of love, a more platonic one of mutual respect. Not only is this more in keeping with the real-life tale but it also makes for a more interesting story. How many films are about friendship as opposed to romantic relations? The last one of this kind that I saw on film was the French masterpiece, The Intouchables, and that was back in 2011.
Victoria and Abdul reminds me of the friendship shared between King David and Jonathan. For centuries it was regarded as one of the purest and wholehearted friendships written on paper, but for the last few decades, people have started questioning whether there was something more going on there. It’s more of a reflection of how sexualized our society has become when we start assuming innocent relationships have ulterior motives. This is why a story such as Victoria and Abdul is so important; it reintroduces the idea that not everything has to be about sex, and indeed sometimes a relationship can be quite rich without it.
The situation is reminiscent of Harold and Maude, yet this is a friendship that not only challenges the dividing boundaries of age, but also religion and race. Their unconditional love is unconventional and rather inappropriate in the eyes of others in society at the time. Queen Victoria appears to be the most progressive of the group, completely aware of the issue of racism and has the foresight to know how to counteract the prejudice present in others.
It is at this point where the historians in the audience will split off from those who are more prone to watching romances. The cynic knows that this is a period piece that has been injected with 21st-century morals. Some may even question whether Queen Victoria truly respected Abdul as a fellow human, or if she merely regarded him as some exotic pet. It is disingenuous and is a by-product of political correctness for a film set in this era to be so self-aware of issues surrounding racism. It intentionally ignores the history of oppression experienced at the hand of British colonialism and instead produces a story that’s more ‘fluffy.’ Many critics might also roll their eyes at Abdul’s undying servitude to his queen, though Christians are more likely to recognize where this character is coming from, as Abdul’s attitude is one that would be commended in Scripture.
Yet this is where we need to ask what this film is about. Do we really need a movie in this modern political climate that guilt-trips British audience members and demonstrates just how badly their ancestors treated the people of India (and Pakistan)? Yes, it’s great for educational purposes, and it acknowledges the pain experienced in the past and the need to ask for forgiveness, but it also limits the film’s message to that time period. It highlights the past, but it doesn’t necessarily pave the way for the future. This reimagining of the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul, however, does present an example of how two people can overcome traditional boundaries and is a moral that can be appropriated in more ways than a straight-forward historical piece ever could.
It’s obvious Stephen Frears’ goal is to comment on the prejudice towards those who are culturally different to us, and how ridiculous the objections to such friendships can be. Admittedly, the message is still rather simplistic and is a moral that most mature people would already know. The film does touch upon the tragedies of colonialism, though it does so like a tentative hand reaching out to a wobbly pile of jelly, poking it a bit, musing that it’s interesting, before averting its gaze and shuffling backward down a corridor. Victoria and Abdul very much keeps the tone light, but any real look into the issues surrounding British occupation would feel shoe-horned into an otherwise delightful narrative. It’s just not that type of movie, leaving hard-core historians needing to look elsewhere.
However, Victoria and Abdul’s technical aspects cannot be scrutinized so readily. Some of the sets are the real deal, with the production filmed in heritage-listed properties. When it wasn’t, the production designers tried their best to be as authentic as possible, and their effort shows. Don’t be surprised if you see the costume department also up for an Oscar. They looked like they had a blast providing a vast array of uniforms and dresses that are authentic to the Victorian era. The camera knows when to zoom in on an expression, beautifully capturing the subtle moments of appreciation between the two leads, with the editors masterfully cutting together the best story possible. It’s a technically proficient film that’s difficult to fault.
Ultimately Victoria and Abdul exposes the silliness of prejudice by presenting a bubbly, comical look at British aristocracy. At the film’s core is a wonderful friendship that should bring a smile to most people’s faces, as their enjoyment of life is contagious. This film cheekily states that it’s not necessarily interested in being historically correct, so those who are looking for that type of movie will be severely disappointed by this outing. But for those who regularly enjoy period pieces and romances in particular, even though this isn’t a story typical for the genre, it’s still a must watch.
+ It's refreshing to see such a close friendship on screen.
+ The acting.
+ Light-hearted tone is incredibly enjoyable.
+ Set and costume design.
+ Will be a delight for those who love romances or period piece dramas.
+ A wonderful example of servitude.
- 21st century morals injected into a Victorian era period piece.
- Ignores the horrors of Queen Victoria's rule and colonialism.
- The film will annoy history buffs.