“Victoria & Abdul” is the little-known story of a relationship that sprang up in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. The Queen was known to have a close relationship with a Scottish servant after her husband’s death, but the subject in this scandalous bond is a “low born” man “of color,” from the unruly colony of India. If the Royal Household resented Victoria’s Scotsman, this relationship with Abdul left their stiff upper lips in a perpetual purse, and a little steam bursting from their ears.
The book, “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,” by Shrabani Basu, gives a fascinating account of this history and the royal politics surrounding this relationship. But since it’s based on letters and news clippings from the period, it is, at times, a bit dry to an American who has no inkling of the history or personality of the Monarchy. Because of this, I assumed “Victoria & Abdul” would be a boring art film; if I was lucky, it would be along the lines of a tolerable Jane Austen movie. But from the first scene, I was as enthralled with the story, as the Queen reportedly had been enthralled with Abdul himself. This is not a stuffy historic art film. Victoria and Abdul is an utterly delightful British rom com, in the same vein as “Notting Hill.” I mean that in all seriousness.
What the book lacks in personality is more than made up for by the screenplay. Director Stephen Frears’ quip for selecting this film was, “I read the script and it was funny.” Like any good friendship, this historic liaison is easy and funny. Frears, who directed my personal favorites, “The Grifters”, “High Fidelity”, and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” shifts the book’s palace intrigue into the back corridors at first, allowing the queen and her subject’s relationship to unfold. The relationship between Queen and subject is so delightful, that when the racism and politics finally rear their heads, it is absolutely heart-shattering.
Dame Judi Dench plays the monarch Queen Victoria during the last ten years of her life. Dench is masterful as a crotchety monarch, who in the beginning seems to be hoping for death. She is burdened with state dinners and children only concerned with their own interests. The Queen of England and Empress of India yearns to learn about and experience her world. However, Victoria isn’t allowed to travel to her distant kingdom due to “safety concerns.”
The Queen’s close confidant, Abdul Kareem, played by Ali Fazal, served at the pleasure of the Queen, and the displeasure of the rest of Her Royal household. Ali Fazal, who played a brief cameo in “Furious 7”, is better known in Bollywood. Fazal’s smile and constant calm and positive persona are infectious in this role.
The main characters’ friendship strengthens over Victoria’s interest in her faraway realm and the pairs’ shared burden of servitude. Abdul is told of his duties, “The key to good service is standing still and moving back.” This could be read as the subtlety of institutionalized racism and class separation. It is a difficult dynamic to understand in modern times – a colonist showing so much deference to his country’s oppressor. Does Abdul hope to rise above his station in life, or does he actually care for his Monarch? This figure was from a culture that sees honor in giving oneself over to their duty completely. Whatever his motives, Abdul does anything but stand still and move back, because he felt the opposite would serve Her Majesty better.
The film touches upon the echoes of colonial rule and racism that still exist today. But this theme stays at arm’s length; the friendship remains the central focus. Even the side story of Prince Edward, played by Eddie Izzard, keeps the commentary on this subject from detracting from the central story. With his throne just out of reach, the Queen’s son uses racism and classism as a socially acceptable crutch for his true emotions of jealousy and inadequacy.
In the beginning, the Queen is presented with the best of India – the opulence, not the reality. This “ideal versus reality” theme starts when Abdul is chosen to travel with England to present the Queen with a gift. He’s chosen simply because he’s the tallest of the acceptable Indian servants. The pageantry is about the show and whether the household can please Her Majesty. Abdul’s outfits are fashioned on actual Indian attire, with alterations to make them seem “more Indian” to the public. As Ali Fazal said in a recent interview, despite the illusion painted by the costumes and pageantry, Abdul and Victoria still “saw each other for who they were.”
In an awkward comic evening of entertainment, Her Majesty is delighted about the prospects of a new opera, with lovers kept apart by class. And then reunited. And ending with the woman’s death. The Queen responds, “On second thought, We don’t like that.” But audiences will love this one. I give it a solid “must see” for 2017.
Victoria & Abdul opens September 22, expanding across the country on September 29, 2017. Check out the trailer below:
And if you are interested in the whole story, you can watch a documentary here:
Picture Source: Peter Mountain & Focus Features
Interview Source: Build Series AOL