Director Stephen Frears has made great controversial films like SAMMY AND ROSIE GET LAID, THE SNAPPER and MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE. He has also made films about royalty before, like THE QUEEN and also sentimental slush like PHILOMENA, with Judi Dench. VICTORIA AND ABDUL a film about Queen Victoria (Oscar Winner Judi Dench) and her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) contains a cocktail of all the elements of the films mentioned above. The result, as expected as a mediocre Jack of all Trades Master of None film, which shines but only occasionally.
The film chronicles with humour and insight the friendship between Queen Victoria and a decades-younger Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. Karim has been summoned because of his height to present in England all the way from Agar, India the colonized homeland, a present. The present is satirically, a ceremonial coin on behalf of British India to the Queen as a part of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, Abdul with another travel for the intimidating task.
Abdul has done what is forbidden during the ceremony. He makes eye contact with the Queen who finds him handsome. In no time he is cooking her curries, talking to her about his culture, and being elevated to the post of official clerk, or Munshi, becoming an indispensable part of the household — and state.
This is where trouble boils. The Queen’s son, Bertie and the household take offence that this ‘coloured’ lowly servant is treated royally. The ultimatum comes when the Queen decides to knight Abdul in order to have her household respect him. The opposite occur. The household threaten to resign if Karim is knighted. This is where the Queen uses her brain and oratory to win the day. Frears uses the incident to make a statement about the refugee crisis and racial prejudice. The film’s best segment occurs here when the Queen chides her entire household with a speech that put them to shame. This is a Dench’s award winning performance.
Frears’ assessment of Britain and royalty remains respectful. The Queen at one point remarks: “A lot of people around the world hate me.” Abdul says of the British as uncivilized on the ship en-route to England for the first time: “They put it’s blood in their sausages and eat sheep’s brains.” The first words heard by Abdul on landing: “Welcome to Civilization!”
Queen Victoria is revealed in the film with all her grandeur (her robe and servants) but also with all her faults and her ageing process. When she is first seen in the film, her face is not shown, but her body covered in white (like a shroud) in bed with snoring heard. She also claims herself to be and shown as well as cankerous, ill-tempered, fat but also one that has held five generations of household and mother of many children and grandchildren. “I am the Queen of England and the Emperor of India,” she claims proudly.
VICTORIA AND ABDUL is Frears’ mediocre film which is tolerant of everything and offends no one. These kind of films are often humorous, handsomely mounted, well acted but unfortunately forgetful.