Victoria and Abdul is an absorbing, humorous and poignant depiction of an ailing, aged Queen Victoria and her eyebrow-raising friendship with an Indian clerk. Features a superb performance from Judi Dench.
This is the second time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria, the first being in John Madden’s hugely entertaining Mrs Brown (1997) – and why not? Who could do it better?
As in Mrs Brown, the narrative in Victoria and Abdul is set around the Queen developing an unlikely friendship with a male commoner unawed by her lofty standing, in this case Abdul (Ali Fazal) – and apparently based loosely in fact.
Abdul and his reluctant and resentful Anglophobe friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) have been plucked from their homes in the subcontinent as token representatives of the Queen’s Indian empire at a Golden Jubilee ceremony. The pair struggle to make sense of their situation at the Royal Court, as well they might. They’re decked out in colourful tunics embroidered with a Royal insignia, which they point out would never be worn in India. They are told sternly that they must be outfitted thus in the interests of “authenticity.”
This is one of many instances throughout the film of director Stephen Frears obviously relishing sending up the Court and ludicrous aspects of royal etiquette, such as attendees at banquets having their food whipped away the moment the Queen finishes eating (she is served first and scarfs down every course with gusto, so her guests barely have time to start on theirs before their plates are confiscated!).
Despite being instructed never to gaze upon the Queen, on being presented to her as a servant from her Indian empire Abdul not only looks her straight in the eyes, but to the shock and indignation of all present engages in conversation. Far from being offended, Vic takes to the audacious young man, and before long is spending extensive time with him alone, fascinated by his accounts of life and culture in India. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that he is tall, good-looking and charming. There are subtle tones of flirtatiousness in their exchanges, hinting that there is juice in the old girl yet (wisely, the notion that there might be a sexual element to their relationship is not pursued).
Members of the Queen’s inner circle – especially her manipulative and self-serving son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) – are not amused by her new friendship. Monarch she may be, but she is old and spent and it seems they are mostly waiting around with some impatience for her to pop her royal clogs. It is almost as if they resent the new lease on life she has derived from her interaction with the exotic blow-in. And of course, snobbery, cultural imperialism and racism surface in their backroom grumblings about Abdul.
Mohammed is not impressed with him, either. He sees him as selling out, and in toadying up to the Queen seeking to advance up the “stinky, creaking ladder of the shitty British” (haha). Indeed, it is hard to escape the suspicion that Mohammed’s charges have substance.
And yet, there is pathos in the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because Dench infuses her character with such humanity. We see her not as Queen Victoria, but as a lonely old woman worn down by service and her station, now nearing her end and desperate for some genuine human contact. And if Abdul is providing this, ulterior motives matter little.
Unfortunately, for all the genius of Dench’s performance, the piece loses momentum and emotional power in its closing stages, as its carefully managed comedy-of-manners tone lapses into sentiment-driven drama.
Still, Victoria and Abdul is an entertaining watch overall, with some funny and poignant moments – and worth seeing for Dench’s performance alone.
Australian release date: Victoria and Abdul screening in cinemas from 14 Sep 2017
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