Victoria & Abdul – Film Review by Guttman

“Victoria and Abdul” is “based upon real events . . . mostly” states the film’s opening text. Victoria is Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench) and Abdul is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim Indian. Set in 1887 to 1901 during the last years of the Queen’s life, Judi Dench is the reason to see this film. She offers another remarkable performance. The story begins with the arrival of Abdul, one of two Indians sent to the royal household to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin commemorating her Diamond Jubilee. Abdul is instructed not to make eye contact with the Queen but he does. The Queen takes note of his good looks and fine bearing, and a close mother/son relationship develops. The opening scenes are presented with a light comedic touch, but you soon begin to wonder how much of the story is real as the relationship develops. Abdul becomes the Queen’s munshi (teacher) as she learns Urdu and reads the Quran. Abdul is portrayed as the person who provides the Queen with new vigor during the final years of her life. The Queen’s staff, the political crowd that surrounds her and her son Edward VII/Bertie (Eddie Izzard), are quite displeased about the Queen’s interaction with Abdul. The film’s presentation of Queen Victoria as having a progressive perspective on race and cultural relationships is not consistent with my understanding of the historical record. The screenplay by Lee Hall makes a point of racism that dominated Victorian society. When Abdul’s wife and mother-in-law arrive at court wearing burqas, the antagonism towards Indians escalates. Although the film directed by Stephen Frears never adopts a sanctimonious tone during its 112 minute span, its level of playfulness decreases. I suspect the degree to which you like the film will depend upon your reaction to Abdul and whether you find his relationship with Queen Victoria believable. Personally, I couldn’t shake off the “mostly” qualifier in the opening text. Nevertheless, Judi Dench is on screen for a significant part of the film and so long as she is present, this film is one worth seeing.

Steven Guttman

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