Twenty years ago Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, the story of Victoria’s close relationship with John Brown, a member of her household staff. Victoria and Abdul sees her again in the roll of Victoria as the now elderly Queen strikes up another personal relationship with a servant.
A title card at the beginning of the film tells us the film is “based on real events. . . mostly”. The “mostly” reflects director Stephen Frears’s somewhat light treatment of the relationship between the aging Queen and an Indian servant. The film leans more toward comedy than drama, although it really is a combination of the two.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Indian clerk, is chosen to go to England to present Queen Victoria with a special coin to mark her Diamond Jubilee. He is chosen not because of merit, but because he is tall. He and another Indian make the long sea journey, as the other puts it, “to present a medal to the oppressor of the entire subcontinent”. It is meant to be a one event trip, and then they will return to India. But Abdul catches Victoria’s eye and soon they are serving as her personal footmen. As Victoria talks with Abdul, she learns he is very friendly and expansive about the wonders of India. She quickly promotes him to become her “Munshi”, a teacher and spiritual advisor.
As Victoria begins to pay more attention to Abdul, household, court, and son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future Edward VII, become concerned. Much of that concern is based on racism and classism. After all, how could she pay so much attention to a dark-skinned clerk, when there were so many proper and aristocratic people all around her? They took it personally that they were being pushed aside for someone they considered far beneath them.
As the story unfolds in this film, Abdul’s rapid elevation is really a reflection of all the jealousies and internal politics of the court. All of their accusations about Abdul are in fact the same behaviors that they exhibit among themselves. Therein is some of the bite of the film. It allows the aristocracy to parody itself and in so doing raises issues of class, race, and religion that continue to confront society.
Abdul, and his companion Mohammed, are utterly objectified by the court and staff. We see this immediately as they are always referred to as “The Hindus” even though they are both Muslims. That Abdul is teaching the Queen about Urdu and the Quran, only add to the anxiety in court. After all, the British were proud of the Empire they had established and saw that as evidence that all things British (including the language and religion) were superior to those they ruled over.
While the lighter style of storytelling that Frears employs makes for an enjoyable film, I found myself thinking there was something that brought the film up a bit shy of greatness. The film is really the story of Victoria and the court. Abdul serves as the catalyst to create the tensions. Yet, Abdul is never fully fleshed out. As he gains more favor with Victoria, Abdul begins dressing in a grander manner. He seems to be succumbing to the same vanity that the others portray, but he never seems to lose his personal humility.
Another bit that seems to be missing is the short attention given to the antipathy many Indians felt for the British, and Victoria as the symbol of the Empire. As I noted above, Mohammed refers to her as an oppressor. It is noted in the film that she has never traveled there (even though among her titles was Empress of India) because there was a fatwa issued against her and they feared assassins. Yet Abdul seems totally oblivious to that aspect of the relationship.
But I suppose my objections are pushed aside by that “mostly” in the opening title card.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features