Monday, May 28, 2018

VICTORIA & ABDUL (2017): An Unusual Friendship

Having visited the country, India remains for me perhaps the most fascinating nation in the world.  The people speak more languages and dialects than anyplace else.  It is also the home to the most religions.  Yet somehow the nation still holds together.  As a republic, it began in 1947.  As a people, India goes back thousands of years.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, India had to submit to a rule of a much smaller nation.  In terms of population, India is twenty times larger than England.  A large portion of that rule came under the reign of Queen Victoria (Judy Dench).  This is the backdrop of the film Victoria & Abdul, a 111-minute film directed by Stephen Frears. 

Unable to travel to India due to a fatwa placed upon her by an Indian Muslim, Victoria nevertheless was curious about the nation for which is empress.  To the surprise of her entire staff, she hires as her servant Abdul (Ali Fazal).  Abdul is an unusual choice.  Against orders and expectations, he looks the Queen in the eye and kisses her feet in public.  Though outraging Victoria’s staff, the young man makes an impression upon her.  She asks him to teach her Urdu.  Later, upon learning he is a Muslim, she appoints him as her "munshi," or teacher.

That Victoria lavishes attention upon Abdul particularly outrages her oldest son, Albert or Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales and eventually King Edward VII upon Victoria’s death.  Bertie tries to find anything he can use against Abdul to bring him out of favor with the queen.  Mostly, Bertie only succeeds in alienating himself from his mother.  Unfortunately, Bertie has time on his side to get his revenge.  

With Victoria’s health increasingly failing, she tells her favorite servant, Abdul, that it is best that he, his wife and his wife’s mother go back to India.  She is well aware of the dangers he will face without her there to protect him.  Abdul chooses to stay.  His best friend, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who came to England with Abdul is physically unable to cope with England’s cold climate – so very different from that in India.  As Mohammed refuses to provide Bertie with any information he can use against Abdul, Bertie chooses to keep Mohammed in the country to die away from his homeland.
When Victoria does die, Bertie tries to destroy all documents and belongings that would show Abdul ever had any connection with the fallen queen.  Abdul, his wife and her mother then return to India to live out their lives.

Though sometimes sad, Victoria & Abdul, overall makes for pleasurable if mostly light viewing.  There is humor dispersed throughout the movie, and the two leads generally work well together.  It is an example of good storytelling as the story seldom bogs down.

But like most movies of its kind, its attention is more upon English royalty than upon the nation England subjects.  Steven Frears also directed The Queen that concerned our current Queen Elizabeth and the remainder of the royal family following the death of Princess Diana.  The topic of royalty seems to obsess him.  And judging by a recent royal wedding, it is a subject of fascination for a great deal of other individuals as well.  Royalty obsesses us.

I also question whether the film isn’t historical revisionism.  How accurate is such a portrayal of the queen when such a story only came to light a century later.  While watching the film, we view Bertie and the household staff and their prejudices in disdain while not really understanding that India was under England’s thumb for a long period of time.  This includes the entire Victorian age.  Despite whatever favoritism Abdul may have actually found with Queen Victoria, he nevertheless remains a servant to her.  I fear that such a historic lesson is lost upon many of the viewers as well as the film director.

Having said this, Victoria & Abdul remains remains a powerful character study and a worthwhile film to watch.  Perhaps Queen Victoria, nearing the end of her life, was tired of the hypocrisy and understood there was no reason not to form a warm and wonderful relationship with her odd and eccentric friend.  Judy Dench plays the role powerfully and with singularity.  We would hope that all of us would care as little for public opinion under the same circumstances as the character of Victoria does in this film.  She represents the best of humanity while her royal staff, full of their own self-regard, remains the absolute worst

May 28, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018