Victoria and Abdul
Dir: Stephen Frears
Stephen Frears is a director who has made many films, some sublime (My Beautiful Laundrette, High Fidelity) and some decidedly less so (say, Mary Reilly). Where does Victoria and Abdul fit on that spectrum?
Based on a true story, the film tells a story set late in Queen Victoria’s reign. To call her grumpy and cantankerous would be an understatement. She is subject to an incessant procession of events, dinners and ceremonial openings that whiz past without the requirement for her mental presence. She eats oblivious to other guests. An industry of servants, aides and bureaucrats keep this machine moving along with well-worn protocols greasing the wheels.
Into this melange comes Abdul, plucked from obscurity in India as servants. And somehow, a friendship begins between the monarch and the lowly Indian man, to the point where she appoints him her Munshi (teacher or spiritual guide in Urdu). As one might imagine, the elevation of Abdul is not welcomed readily by those around the Queen and conflict ensues.
It goes without saying that Judi Dench’s performance of Victoria (her second after Mrs Brown in 1997) is quite astonishing. She carries the film. While Ali Fazal as Abdul is charismatic to an point, the relationship between the two that should be the engine room of this film seems not entirely believable. There are some clues as to why the monarch might have been drawn to this man but the most obvious explanation the film offers (he was nice) is too superficial to support the drama. So it is that Abdul is mostly absent for the middle part of the film in order to ramp up the conflict provided by the Queen’s staff. At this point the script provides some crackle, amongst some dubious ideas.
Those who talk about film have coined a phrase for a particular screenwriting idea in the last 10 years or so: The Magical Negro. The use of that anachronistic (and troubling) descriptor is apt in this sense. This term refers to a concept found increasingly in narratives where a white person of some privilege is taught significant life lessons by someone from another class or ethnic grouping. That such wisdom comes from this magical person is portrayed as unexpected. Once you think about this idea you start to see it in more and more films and TV and it provokes an interesting question: why is it that white audiences seem to resonate with the idea that wisdom comes from elsewhere? Stated like that, it might be seen to fit with a spiritual thought process wherein help must come from above; we as humans cannot get through this on our own. Possibly modernist thinking has debunked our own central myths so assistance must come through other sources of wisdom. But when it happens in film it often does so as an objectifying, separating trope which solidifies a world in which white people are in charge and others live to serve us. Whilst this film is based on ‘real events’ it certainly plays into that thinking. That Victoria was some kind of progressive bastion of diversity is hard to justify.
Likewise, the relationship between the Abdul and Victoria is hard to appreciate as light-hearted and heartwarming in the context of England's occupation of India. The nature of that imperial rule receives no attention other than the monarch often mentioning her role at the very apex of that colonial system.
Beyond that, Frears delivers a sumptuous looking film that manages to spend considerable moments poking fun at the idea of monarchy or at least the human infrastructure it requires. In that sense the film tries to have its cake and eat it too. At its heart Victoria and Abdul is quite conservative, never questioning the often awful behaviour of this woman and the slave-like relationship with those below her.
But as a sweet confection, there are laughs from some broad comedy and a tear or two towards the end. Maybe some time with Dame Judi in full flight is enough?