From the moment the words “based on real events… mostly” pop up on the screen you know you should take what you’re about to see with a pinch of salt. But while Victoria and Abdul is very clearly a loose adaptation of Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian servant, it doesn’t detract from the story that is being told.
Above all, this is a story of an unlikely friendship that sprung between two unlikely people and across not only a social divide, but a racial divide at a time when neither were acceptable.
The opening ten minutes do a great job of scene setting. We begin in India in the late 1800’s. The British have ruled India for 29 years and it’s clear to see that we are not always the most gracious of occupiers. A young Indian man named Abdul (Ali Fazal) is asked to travel to England to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a commemorative coin along with another Indian whom he does not know.
Through a sequence which introduces both Victoria’s morning routine and Abdul’s routine on his journey to England, we learn how different these two people are. Victoria is heaved out her bed and dressed by no less than 15 servants, while Abdul and his friend sleep on hammocks in the ship’s hold. It’s an effective set piece that leaves you wondering how these two could ever become friends, even if they should meet.
But friends they become, and thus flows the main body of the story. Queen Victoria is shown as eager to learn about her subjects in India (being unable to visit for fear of assassination) and Abdul is all too happy to help. Of course, there are obstacles along the way; the views of her house staff, her family (Eddie Izzard) and even the Prime Minister of Great Britain (Michael Gambon). It’s a tale of friendship triumphing in the face of adversity – a tale that wouldn’t work if it didn’t involve Queen Victoria, a woman above the thoughts and opinions of her subjects.
Most of the movie is quite light-hearted. The audience is pulled along with this developing friendship in a way that makes you feels as if you were part of it. You’re captured by all the moments they share together in a way you couldn’t be by just reading about these events. It’s an achievement to bring the audience into the friendship like this and Director Stephen Frears should be commended for this. Sadly, the darker and more serious moments of the movie don’t flow quite as well and can occasionally make the viewer feel voyeuristic. That said, any of these moments that rely mostly on Judi Dench are carried with ease. She is the stand out across the entire feature.
Judi Dench portrays Queen Victoria perfectly. Watching her, it’s hard to imagine she didn’t take tips from the real Victoria. It’s a masterful portrayal of a woman who is equal parts lonely and selfish, arrogant and sad. There are some beautiful moments in which we see the inner workings of the character (in particular the conversation she has with Abdul when they are alone in Scotland).
She shows not just a monarch but a woman, a woman who is coming to terms with her flaws and life in a way that not many people ever will. I find it difficult to think of a more well-rounded characterisation of a historical figure. She easily carries the entire movie through its most patchy spots and brings to life a portrayal that is so well rounded that it’s impossible to see anything but Queen Victoria throughout.
Ali Fazal’s portrayal of Abdul is a little more mixed. Whenever he gets the opportunity to speak, he delivers his line with a youthful and vibrant innocence that shows just how easy it would be to be friends with this man. His conversations with Victoria tend to be somewhat abstract and poetic, which works well and sets him up nicely as her teacher. Sadly, Fazal is just not given the dialogue he deserves to show throughout the movie. In some scenes, he is treated as little more than a prop, standing in the background to show his presence is always there but not saying anything. Worse still, his innocent smile is almost always used as filler in these gaps making him look relatively vacant in some scenes. It’s a real shame because it’s clear that Fazal has both the skill and desire to do more with the part, but it seems he just wasn’t given the opportunity.
The only other thing I feel it is worth mentioning, is the way in which the British Empire is treated throughout. It’s muddled and quite liked that about it. Queen Victoria’s demeaner shows that she feels she absolutely had the right to be Empress of India. Her willingness to learn about Indian culture and language shows she’s not simply superficial about it. The challenges that meet Abdul as he goes about his work (both in India and the U.K) had an undercurrent of British disdain for other cultures. Ignorance and entitlement are the calling cards of the British Empire – here they are wonderfully demonstrated with a helping of humour to make them more palatable for a British audience. Yes, there’s a little a bit of looking back with rose-tinted glasses going on – but it’s a period drama, what did you expect?