"Victoria and Abdul" An Entertaining, History-Lite Exercise
In 1887, as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubliee, the monarch received two Indian servants to honor the occasion. One of them was Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim, a 14 year old who was the son of a hospital assistant. Over time, Victoria came to like and trust this young man, going so far as to give him the title “Munshi” (“teacher”). He served her for over 15 years and retired to a large estate in India that the Queen had secured for him.
Director Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria and Abdul is an intriguing, albeit safe, account of the unusual relationship that developed between the Queen and her loyal servant, a history-lite exercise that is more intent on delivering cute and heart-warming moments rather than delve too far into the thorny issue of the British colonization of India and its ramifications. Frear’s intent is to entertain not so much, inform.
Of course, with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, a role she tackled once before in the similarly themed Mrs. Brown, Frears has at his disposal a powerhouse talent in a role tailor-made for her. As soon as she appears on screen, in a grand, memorable entrance, you can’t take your eyes off her. (Does anyone scowl better than Dame Judi?)
The biggest surprise is that her co-star, Ali Fazal, is able to keep pace with her. Sporting a natural charm as Abdul Karim, as well as a hugely likable role, thanks to screenwriter Lee Hall, the Bollywood star proves that he’s far more than a hunk from abroad, but has some acting chops as well, which are evident in the more quiet scenes the two share.
The film does get off to a bit of a wobbly start, as Frears cuts back and forth from Victoria’s days at court and Abdul’s frantic life in Agra. But once the characters are brought together in England, things settle into a nice rhythm punctuated with clock-like precision by moments of gentle humor and obvious emotion. As the friendship between the two develops, discord arises among those assigned to look out for and advise the Queen. That she relies so much on Abdul, the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) and her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) become concerned that this outsider may be exposing her to a different perspective of things that could lead to a change in policy.
While this is touched upon, it isn’t fully explored, which is the glaring fault of the screenplay. Whereas Abdul is presented as respectful and honored to be of service to the Queen, his cohort, fellow Indian servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) comes off as a cranky, reluctant footman. While he does express some dissenting political views where English rule is concerned, these are presented as the complaints of a curmudgeon and little more.
Be that as it may, Victoria and Abdul is not misleading in what it has to offer. In the trailers for the film and within the first 15 minutes, you know the sort of concoction Frears has whipped up and whether it will be to your liking. More fluff than substance, this is a film that viewers are supposed to sit back and absorb, not analyze.