Written By: Nigel Asipa
Once you see the scene that’s in, for me that best describes the film’s delightful tone. It’s sponge cake soft comedy is infectiously likable. This is a nice film. It brings forth a friendship I hadn’t heard of and with the sure hand of Stephen Frears (who seems to revel in biopics lately with the likes of The Queen, The Iron Lady and Florence Foster Jenkins), Victoria and Abdul was a pleasant, briskly paced but important story of cultural ignorance powered by a usually divine Judi Dench at the helm.
In 1887, Abdul Kareem was a vernacular prison clerk in Agra. He’s called upon by the Queen for her Golden Jubilee. He’s delighted at the prospect of meeting the Queen who’s also the Empress of India. Both Abdul and Mohammed (another native of Agra) are specifically instructed to do nothing else but present a ceremonial coin to the Queen, back off and fade in the background.
The Queen is the least pleased to be there more than anyone. Unfazed, tired and seemingly working on auto pilot, she scoffs her cuisine and asks “are we finished?”. When she’s presented with the coin, Abdul gets well carried away and goes down to kiss her feet to everyone’s amazement. He looks at her with crazed eyes and a nervous smile while she looks on with peculiarity at him while everyone else seems either be disgusted or just gobsmacked at what just happened.
The Queen doesn’t let Abdul get away however. If she’s Empress of India, what better way to understand the culture better than to ask someone who’s from there? Before she knows it, she’s learning Urdu, it’s calligraphy and obtaining many artefacts and décor to best pay respect to India.
Furthering the Queens legacy from 1997’s Mrs Brown and borrowing much material from Shrabani Basu’s book of the same name, Frears’ approach was to hit the nerve of how taboo this relationship is to many and to tell us that it was a meaningful and special interplay between the two. It was easy for them both to share insight with one another, they were easily enlightened by one another and as Dench perceived her, seemed ahead of her time.
There’s a profound moment when she reveals the despair she contends with since the passing of her husband some 16 years previous. She now looks at herself as a “fat, impotent, silly old woman” with a demeanour that suggests ‘oh what’s the point of going on?’. It’s Abdul’s sincerity and admiration that spurs her on and she ultimately promotes him as her ‘Munshi’ or secretary, such a decision that many of her subjects consider a sullying of the house’s tradition. Surrounded by ‘racialists’ or ‘vultures’, it seems their friendship isn’t meant to last. For so long she’s had ‘aristocratic fools’ dictate to her what she needs to do despite her status, now it’s the other way round.
Dench can truly do no wrong. Her soulful eyes and her ability to imbue her characters with a great deal of power is another showcase for her. A role she previously portrayed 2 decades earlier alongside Billy Connolly, I’m not sure I’ve seen her have this much fun. When her character exercises her power, it’s pretty much her dropping the mic every time with such authority.
She’s accompanied by a great supporting cast. There’s Eddie Izzard’s Bertie, the queen’s embarrassment for a son. Pompous and conniving, he vies for his mother’s power and shares the household’s disdain and disapproval. It’s one of the standout performances of the film.
Adeel Akthar’s Mohammed is amongst the most cynical, he has a great moment towards the end of his arc that displays his fortitude in a such a satisfying way. After seeing him in this year The Big Sick, I want to see more of him, he’s so good.
And then there’s Ali Fazal. More known for his Bollywood feats and a role in Furious 7, he infuses Abdul with such sentiment and charm, he’s a lot of the film’s heart.
Towards its final act it can feel like it goes on for a bit too long even if there’s information that’s necessary to tell. And there’s pathetic fallacy to sell the notion of things turning sour to influence the audience that felt a bit cheap. But its irresistible charm is enough to outweigh those missteps. Plus the always dependable Dench keeps the whole thing engaging.