British filmmakers have long mined their nation’s history for subject matter, but with the UK’s exit from the European Union looming, we can expect even more period fare as England contemplates its future by revisiting its past. Already this year has brought Their Finest, A United Kingdom, Churchill, Dunkirk, and Viceroy’s House; now comes Victoria & Abdul, Stephen Frears’s take on the double dealings inside Queen Victoria’s retinue toward the end of her reign. As suggested by the opening title—”Based on real events . . . mostly”—this is a tongue-in-cheek comedy that plays fast and loose with history.
Judi Dench is right at home as the lonely monarch, having already played Victoria in John Madden’s biopic Mrs. Brown (1997). In both pictures, the queen mourns the death of her consort, Prince Albert, and weathers various intrigues as her snooty court tries to block an outsider who becomes her trusted friend. In Madden’s movie that upstart is John Brown, a rough-edged Scottish stable hand; in Frears’s movie, Abdul Karim, an Indian attendant to the queen, represents even more of an affront as a brown-skinned Muslim. Sent to England for the 1887 Golden Jubilee, he captures Victoria’s eye by reverently kissing her toe and defies expectations by staying on as her secretary and Urdu teacher.
When producers buy the screen rights to a book—in this case Shrabani Basu’s biography of Karim—they’re free to adapt it at will. With a screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), this is certainly Frears’s wittiest, most entertaining film since The Queen (2006). Yet his attitude toward the young Asian man at its center veers on condescension, somewhat surprisingly for a director whose own films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dirty Pretty Things) have been part of Britain’s stride toward racial and ethnic inclusion.
As Abdul, Ali Fazal resembles some exotic hybrid of puppy and peacock, doting on the queen as he struts about in ever finer attire. He is naively unprepared for his banishment after Victoria dies and her whining son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) takes the throne as Edward VII. In real life Karim acutely recognized British prejudices and used his position to further the welfare of Muslims in India. Victoria & Abdul may capture the ugly side of Britain’s colonial past, but its demeaning portrait of Abdul reinforces the Orientalism it purports to lampoon. v