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Wondering if you should see the new Victoria & Abdul movie? I think it depends on what you’re looking for.
I saw the new movie Victoria & Abdul a week ago and I still don’t know how to write a review of it. I feel like I need to write two.
The first would aimed at people looking for a moving costume drama, people who want a fun night out, people who won’t drift into thinking about the massive exploitation heaped upon India, first by the British East India Company and then by Britain directly. If you can ignore all of the issues associated with colonization and foreign rule, you’ll have a good time at this movie.
But the other review would be aimed at people who would be appalled at the way the British are portrayed as stiff buffoons sipping tea while the Indian servants are made to live far from home, forced to serve the Queen, with almost no thought given to British imperialism, except for one lonely character. Let’s get that review out of the way first.
I’m not an Anglophile. My only experience with British costume drama is The Crown, a series I highly recommend. The Crown portrays the absurdities of the British monarchy, but it does so through a veneer of respect. You come to the conclusion of absurdity because of the cumulative effect of seeing life lived as a monarch, not by being hit in the face with it. On the other hand, Victoria & Abdul treats the Queen’s household as a group to be laughed at. Indeed, the Queen’s entire existence is portrayed as ridiculous (until her Indian savior arrives, that is). And that’s the problem: when we laugh at them as a group, it’s just that much easier to overlook their racism (a quandary I find myself in every time I laugh at a Trump supporter online).
So, while I think we’re supposed to admire Queen Victoria for taking an interest in the language and culture of a place she rules, it’s hard to overlook the fact that her interest didn’t seem to have any sort of positive impact on her actual Indian subjects, save the one particular Indian serving her directly, who, remember, was basically gifted to the Queen with no say in the matter.
If you’re the sort of person who can’t shut these sorts of thoughts out of your head while watching a movie, skip this one.
However, if you go to the movies just looking for a good time, a few laughs, and some amazing costumes and scenery, you’ll probably love this movie. It’s a chaste love story, about a woman who has given up on life and happiness and a man who opens her eyes to another culture, igniting a spark of learning that lasted until she died. When the movie begins Queen Victoria has been ruling for decades and she’s just tired, in every sense. She’s tired of the pomp and ceremonies of being Queen. She’s tired of outliving the men in her life. And she’s physically tired.
Into her life of boredom and repetition comes an exotic, handsome young man who is entranced by the Queen and determined to know her. We’re not given any background as to why he’s so smitten, and it seems odd given his traveling companion’s hatred of all things British (scene-stealer Adeel Akhtar, as Mohammed). The book that the movie was based on doesn’t have a whole lot more background on Abdul, but it does tell of some traveling he had done with his father, and this sense of adventurousness would help explain why Abdul is thrilled to see another land far from his own. But we don’t get that from the movie. He’s told to go to England, and he goes – eagerly.
Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim does the best he can with an underwritten role. He’s four parts wonderment, five parts wise and revelatory speeches to the Queen, and one part actual personality. On the other hand, Dame Judi Dench gets to dive into an iconic part (again – she played Queen Victoria in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, a movie I have not seen) and she makes the most of it, portraying an old woman who is absolutely craving something different. And when someone different walks into her life, she clings to him like she’s drowning. It’s a great performance.
The movie starts by telling us that it’s based mostly on a true story, and where they’ve taken the most license is in inventing some tension between Abdul and Victoria. I found these plot points unnecessary. There is enough tension between the Queen and her household, and Abdul and the household. Inventing reasons for the Queen to have tension with Abdul was overkill.
One piece of fiction that I think added to the movie was Mohammed, the other Indian sent over to serve with Abdul. In real life (according to the book, anyway) Mohammed seemed just as happy to serve as Abdul, but in the movie he’s the lone voice that is resentful of Britain’s involvement in India and who just wants to go home. He’s given the best scene in the movie and does it justice.
I enjoyed seeing the growing friendship blossom between Abdul and Victoria against the backdrop of an increasingly jealous and panicked household. His rise is meteoric and the daggers are out, especially from the Queen’s heir, Bertie, played with teeth-clenching perfection by Eddie Izzard. I was also pleased to see that after glossing over other aspects of history, the movie got the tone of the ending right (although after such a light movie, the ending is rather dark), but overall, I don’t think this is director Stephen Frears’ best work. (If you want to see a better example of absurdity and comedy mixed with sadness, watch Frears’ last movie, Florence Foster Jenkins.)
The sets and costumes are truly amazing, as they have to be when dealing with insanely rich royals. The locations are beautiful. The story is engaging and you’ll have a good time, as long as you don’t try to look at the bigger picture.
If you’re interested in the making of the film, you should definitely check out the social links towards the bottom of this page. There are some really good behind-the-scenes clips.
Victoria & Abdul, from Focus Features, is in theaters starting September 22nd, 2017.Should you see 'Victoria & Abdul'? Depends on what you're looking for. Click To Tweet