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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

Victoria & Abdul movie review: one of her best friends was brown

Victoria and Abdul green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Charming based-on-fact British costume dramedy gently snarks about power and propriety but cuts a lot deeper when it comes to bigotry and bootlicking.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Judi Dench, mostly love Stephen Frears’s films
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.tweet)

“How delightful! What is it, Abdul?” “I have no idea, my Queen.”

“How delightful! What is it, Abdul?” “I have no idea, my Queen.”tweet

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.tweet

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 delightfultweet 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.

Did I hear correctly? Does someone call Abdul an “Uncle Tom”? Oh my…
tweet

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?tweet

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…

“Oppressive colonialism, you say? Oh, you are charming, Abdul!”

“Oppressive colonialism, you say? Oh, you are charming, Abdul!”tweet

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 colonialismtweet 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,tweet 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.


green light 4 stars

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Victoria & Abdul (2017) | directed by Stephen Frears
US/Can release: Sep 22 2017
UK/Ire release: Sep 15 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
BBFC: rated PG (mild bad language, sex references, racist terms)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Anna

    “we’re still telling stories about this dead queen?”

    Heck, I think two movies is hardly too much for a monarch of a large kingdom (it really should be queendom, shouldn’t it? Odd they don’t say it that way.) Lord knows there have been multiple movies about much less important dudes – did we really need two documentaries about Julian Assange?

    Did you know Violet Brown, the last known living former subject of Queen Victoria when she died, just died today?

  • There are many many more than just two movies about Victoria:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_depictions_of_Queen_Victoria#Film

    And then there are all the TV depictions.

    I had not heard about Violet Brown.

  • Anna

    Oh I misunderstood you, I thought you meant this and the Brown movie had been the only ones. I see. Glad to hear this is a good movie – I like Judi Dench too.

  • Kathy_A

    I enjoyed Young Victoria as well.

    As for the reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it was a world-wide bestseller in the 1850s and ’60s, not just in the US. In fact, the abolitionist movement in England was even bigger than the US one, and at an earlier date, going back to the 18th century. (Frederick Douglass got the funds for purchasing his freedom from British supporters.) It would make sense that a reasonably-educated Indian man of the time would be aware of the book and its symbolism, especially one who was sympathetic to opposing TPTB like it seems Mohammed is.

  • I’m aware how important the abolitionist movement was in England. But this character is not English, and he doesn’t seem to be reasonably educated. We don’t know much about him, in fact, but it seems likely that he was not. And anyway, the term “Uncle Tom” as an epithet appears to have come not from the novel but from derivative works, which may not have been available in India:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom#Epithet

    It’s a really minor issue with the film. But the copyeditor in me perked up at what I thought might be an anachronistic usage. :-)

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