I’m “biast” (con): we’re still telling stories about this dead queen?
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The ribbing writes itself: Hey, they finally made the sequel to 1997’s Mrs. Brown! You know, the movie in which Judi Dench as Queen Victoria develops a close platonic friendship — or maybe even a romance — with royal groundskeeper John Brown in the early years of her widowhood, in the 1860s. It was a scandal! And now here’s Victoria & Abdul, which opens 20 years later and stars Judi Dench (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) again as a 20-years-later Queen Victoria who, in the last years of her reign, develops a close platonic friendship — no suggestion of romance this time — with a servant. And it’s a scandal! At last, the second film in the Victoriaverse. (We’ve also got that TV series about the young Victoria starring Jenna Coleman. This long-dead monarch is having a moment.)
But I kid a charming British costume dramedy and its gentle snark about power and propriety and the prissy toadies who dared to try to police the queen. Although Victoria & Abdul is a lot more than just a light distraction.
What happens is this: In 1887, for Victoria’s golden jubilee, a celebration of her 50 years on the throne, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazel: Furious 7) journeys from Agra, in India, to present a special coin, a gift for the woman who is also Empress of India from her subjects there. Abdul is no one highborn or important, just a clerk, but he has caught the attention of some British functionary or other who wants to reward him… and also they were looking for someone tall. It’s all quite preposterous, but Abdul is a sweetie — Fazel is absolutely delightful in the role — who adores Victoria and is up for adventure. Not so his fellow presenter, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar: The Big Sick, War Book), a last-minute replacement who would rather not be here, hates the occupying oppressors, and also is rather short.
Abdul had one job: Present the coin to the Queen, then back away without making eye contact, so as, you know, not to be recognized as a person. He succeeds at the former — the coin is accepted — fails at the latter. After catching Victoria’s eye, she declares herself intrigued — “the tall one” is “very handsome,” she notes matter-of-factly (he is indeed) — and adopts him as a diverting companion. At first he’s merely a novelty, perhaps, but she is truly lonely and directionless, and he is amusing and agreeable and adoring, and he can teach her about a land she ostensibly rules but has never even visited, and knows little about. It seems like a pleasantly symbiotic friendship. What could go wrong?
Director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) mines a lot of good-natured humor out of the outrageousness of royal existence, such as the absolute frenzy Windsor Castle is thrown into in preparation for the Queen’s arrival for the banquet at which Abdul’s coin will be presented. (Young Benjamin Haigh [The Conjuring 2] as the overexcitable page boy who races through the castle screaming messages about what’s to be urgently done is hilarious.) Much sharper are the cutting observations on the appalling privilege and equally appalling prejudice of those surrounding the Queen, including her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith [Whisky Galore!, Jupiter Ascending], in his last live-action performance); her ladies in waiting, Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams: The White King, Man Up) and Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar: Swallows and Amazons, High-Rise); and her son, the Prince of Wales, Bertie (Eddie Izzard: The Lego Batman Movie, Absolutely Anything). “He’s the brown Mr. Brown,” the Baroness sneers; none of them can abide the idea of a servant, an Indian, a Muslim having such unfettered access to the Queen. He’s stealing their opportunities to be bootlickers, for starters…
Victoria & Abdul — based on the book Confident Royal by Shrabani Basu, with a script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) — is a true story (“mostly,” an opening card notes wryly), and it does not ignore the deeply problematic issues of colonialism and of Abdul’s… well, it could unkindly be called obsequiousness. I may have heard incorrectly, though I don’t believe so: I think at one point, Mohammed accuses Abdul of being an “Uncle Tom.” Would a not-terribly-well-educated Indian man in the 1890s be familiar with that term? In any case, it’s not wholly inappropriate. India has long since been independent from the United Kingdom, of course, but there remains a resonance for today that I was not anticipating from this film: it’s almost an admonishment to be more open to learning about other cultures, perhaps particularly the ones that seem extra foreign and scary. (There is, I’m sure, a deliberate irony in how some of the things that Abdul tells Victoria about India, mostly along the lines of food, would today be considered “quintessentially” British, like garam masala spices.) Abdul shares with Victoria spiritual and religious ideas that seem like incredibly arcane wisdom to her yet are relatively common knowledge to Indians, or at least that’s what Abdul says. (Everyone knows the Koran and Rumi’s poetry, as far as he’s concerned. And he’s also not well educated, so he might be correct.) And it’s not that these things are not wise for being widely known, merely that the common wisdom of another culture might also have something to say to us as well, if only we listen.
There’s additional, almost shocking relevance to be found here: much of Ponsonby’s and Bertie’s ire when it comes to the Queen’s relationship with Abdul is about men who cannot abide a woman with power, and who dares to assert it, as she does with her repeated insistence that her friendship with Abdul is to be accommodated. This aspect of the film has no happy side to it. But Victoria and Abdul’s friendship, depicted here with great good warmth and wit and kindness, is a wonderful object lesson that barely feels like we’re being schooled at all.