Review: 'Victoria & Abdul', Starring Judi Dench And Ali Fazal

Films such as Victoria and Abdul are marketed as charming, cute, and feel-good, with some humor sprinkled in. “Look,” the promos say, “here’s a nice story about two unlikely friends who find solace in one another despite racism.” We’ve seen this kind of plot in many a film and it’s always cringe-worthy and seldom as charming as probably intended by the filmmakers. Based on the book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant, by Shrabani Basu, what Victoria and Abdul fails to convey is the distinct point of view of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Despite the fact that the film is based on his story, it's largely Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her household who take center stage. This results in a highly unfocused film that uses charm and humor to cover up its inherent racism.

Set at the beginning of the 20th century and several years into the reign of the British Empire over India, Abdul Karim, a clerk, is selected to present a medal to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Chosen for the simple fact that he is tall, he is joined by Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) on the journey from India to England. From the very start of the film, Abdul and Mohammed are mistreated. They’re talked down to, looked at as though they're insects, ignored and demeaned at every turn. However, Abdul doesn't let it get to him. He sees this opportunity to serve the queen (the Empress of India who ironically never visited the country over which she held power) as immensely gratifying, romanticizing, like many do, the oppressor.

Meanwhile, Queen Victoria, at 71 years old, is bored, sad, and tired of her life, as well as her son Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). Bertie is cruel and selfish, completely filling the shoes of the stereotypical bad guy. He wants the crown, plain and simple. Witnessing the ever-growing friendship between her and Abdul, he treats his mother like a senile old woman who's lost her marbles.Victoria, while a bit more sympathetic than the rest of her royal family, is still the epitome of privilege. At one point, she cries about it being “difficult to be the queen” and how lonely it can be to Abdul--who is her servant, has traveled thousands of miles, and has been separated from his family, mind you. Although she takes great interest in learning Urdu and the teachings of the Quran (and she later promotes Abdul from servant to teacher) it's still apparent how the dynamic is unbalanced and entrenched in the system of England's oppression and rule over its colonized countries. An example is when Victoria plays the victim after finding out that Abdul omitted information regarding some kind of mutiny against the crown in India. However, she doesn't bat an eye or seems regretful when she admits to Abdul that she wears a very special piece of jewelry that was stolen from the Taj Mahal by English officers.

The film is ridiculous in that it spends half its time on the nonsensical and not so much on anything meaningful. We're supposed to buy lines like, “you're more special to me than my own wife,” and believe that Victoria and Abdul’s friendship is full of intensity and depth when that's not the case at all. In fact, Victoria and Abdul spends half of its runtime mocking Abdul, his friend, his culture and playing it up for laughs. It doesn’t matter that Bertie, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins), and the rest of the manor are obviously meant to be racist and ignorant, it’s that the story is still more about them and their discomfort with the status quo than it is about Abdul’s journey. The material comes off as wildly offensive, clearly favoring the monarchy because the audience is meant to take pity on Abdul and congratulate Victoria for doing the same. The film had plenty of potential to deliver a more insightful story arc and to make use of Abdul's point of view, but director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall instead went for gimmicks and humor at the expense of Abdul.

Despite a terribly lackluster and infuriating execution, Victoria and Abdul did boast a strong performance by Judi Dench. It couldn’t save the movie (no talent could), but Dench paints the picture of a forlorn Victoria, yearning for something to put a spring in her step. She makes a grand speech to her entire household at one point and it’s really fantastic, but unfortunately her performance is greater than the movie itself. Ali Fazal’s earnestness lends itself believably to his character. He plays Abdul as very naive, but extremely grateful for his luck and opportunity. And while Fazal gives a good performance, it becomes extremely hard to watch as his character is constantly mistreated. Fazal most definitely deserves better than this film.

While it’s intriguing that this is based on a true story, Victoria and Abdul lacks any depth or heart, too busy with irritating and racist hijinks. This is especially the case in the film’s final act, when the household becomes enraged that Victoria has raised Abdul’s status; this is when Frears' attempts to mine the situation for comedy become the worst. It's infuriating that so much racism is packed into such a short amount of time and the antics are all so the audience can laugh at Abdul, while he's being humiliated left and right. The film very much needed more of Abdul’s perspective as it would have greatly elevated the film and enriched the story in many respects. Instead, Victoria and Abdul becomes just another example of a missed opportunity to spotlight the voice of a minority character in a story meant to be about him.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5