Review: ‘Victoria and Abdul’

Recently hitting the cinemas, Victoria and Abdul is a charming film using beautiful scenery, period style elegance, exquisite 19th century costuming and seductive motifs.

 

The story begins with the statement: ‘based on real events…mostly’ and quickly you get the feeling that much licence has been taken with the retelling of this story, which has been adapted from Abdul Karim’s diaries found 100 years after the event. The Queen’s documents and letters in regards to their relationship were reportedly burnt when her son, Albert (King Edward VII) became king after her passing in 1909.

 

Set in the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign, we see a humorous and light-hearted look at a time when Victoria had seen many loved ones pass, and was perhaps feeling alone in the world.

 

The story begins with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim prison clerk, being chosen simply because of his height, to travel from India to England with another Indian servant, to present a coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) during royal celebrations. When Abdul breaks protocol and makes eye contact with the Queen (after repeatedly being cautioned not to), an unlikely friendship is sparked and the two become inseparable.

 

The friendship causes much disharmony and opposition within the royal household, but despite political and religious tensions surrounding the friendship, Queen Victoria is stubborn in her loyalty to Abdul and puts others aside to elevate him with many honours, which only adds to the disharmony.

 

Judy Dench is excellent in every role she plays, and this film is no exception, though as far as this story goes, we cannot go past the fact that this portrayal is not the most flattering of Queen Victoria or the British people. While Abdul is portrayed and displayed in glory as a charming hero, rising from his low status to becoming so close to the English Queen (he even tells her he loves her above his wife), the Queen is highlighted in a somewhat unflattering light.

 

Queen Victoria is portrayed as gullible, over-eating, obese, a somewhat messy eater, lacking in manners and falling asleep at the royal dinner table. She comes across as someone who is ignorant of the affairs of state within her country and who enjoys spending her time with food and entertainment above the dealings of politics.

 

Though this may be seen as humorous and endearing, Queen Victoria seems to come off second best. A far cry from the favourable account of her in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, which depicts the beautiful love story between Queen Victoria and her husband Albert, this account surely favours Abdul’s thoughts on how he perceived himself during his time in the Queen’s service, whether it be true or not.

 

These discrepancies create an odd feeling about the story, somewhat out of balance, even going as far as Queen Victoria overlooking her own son and grandchild on her deathbed in favour of Abdul.

 

Though deeply hurt when she learns Abdul lied to her by withholding information in regards to the Indian mutiny against Britain, in which thousands of British soldiers were killed and a target put on her head, (which she seems to have had no idea about), Victoria continues to make an example of Abdul, now her spiritual advisor or ‘Munshi’ amongst other honours. Her household, senior advisors and the Prime Minister are made out to look foolish and petty while Abdul is elevated above what seems, everyone in the kingdom, including her own children.

 

Abdul is referred to as her ‘sweet son’.  He performs a play where some in the Queen’s household play the role of his servants and worship him, while he calls himself the king of kings—much to the horror of the play’s audience. In spite of the warnings of her advisers and family, Abdul is given the highest honours and even sends the Queen off to the afterlife with a prayer saying ‘from Allah we come and to Allah we return’.

 

While this movie has so much going for it to lull the viewer into a sweet sense of serenity, there is a lot more going on. It is a film that tells history in a particular way, so taking your thinking cap and discernment with you is required.
Though a nice story, beautifully shot and told, the liberties taken in this film hint of more subtle social and religious agendas that may leave the viewer a little confused, searching to uncover the real intention of the film with an uneasiness to match.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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