Judi Dench still commands the existence most A-list Hollywood stars would overthrow governments for. And Ali Fazal, at least for the most part, is earnest. But neither can save Victoria & Abdul.
Victoria & Abdul
Director – Stephen Frears
Cast – Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
Rating – 1.5/5
Have you have you ever been on the obtaining end of any utterly tragic fake smile? Or, can you remember, with creeping shame, having given one yourself? No matter who you are – the grinning buffoon, or the incredulous spectator – in this scenario, there can be no winners, only endless shame. It really is an act of mutual deception, with both parties trying, and failing spectacularly at most basic levels of human interaction.
Once initiated, there is certainly little a person can do but nod quietly, avoid making eye contact, and after entertaining a few judgmental thoughts, carry on with their insignificant life.
Victoria & Abdul, it pains me to report, is the cinematic equivalent of a fake smile. It bounds up at you, elbowing others out of its way, exuding a false sense of cheer. Obnoxiously, it slaps you on the trunk, barks some nonsense about the good days of the past, and laughs loudly at its jokes. But behind those sparkling pearly white teeth, there’s a snake’s tongue. Beneath that immaculate exterior, there lies a bitter heart.
On the top, Victoria & Abdul is the charming true story of the Queen’s unlikely friendship with an Indian servant, and how this friendship stirred tremendous jealousy among her closest aides. But behind every look of slavish adoration, behind every act of self-sacrifice, behind every scoffing display of ignorance and behind every entitled, narcissistic demand – there exists centuries of subtext; of oppression, murder, and the deeply flawed belief that a person sort of man is preferable to the other.
Which horrid miscalculation is apparent from the very first scene. Abdul, a man who spends his days performing the most menial of tasks for a government that is not his, is selected on a whim and sent to England – two months away by boat – to present Queen Victoria with a bit of gold that does not belong to her. He’ll enter the dining hall quietly, present the ‘mohar’ as a token of appreciation for killing a large number of his countrymen, and looting his country so mercilessly, that it could never be able to recover – and then, he will back out of the room, for no reason looking the Queen directly in the eye.
But this isn’t how the movie sees it. There are always two sides to history, it is stated. It is also said that history is written by the victor.
And not only does Victoria & Abdul blindly ignore history, and the very real, (and incredibly extensively documented) horrors of British colonialism, it can so with such carelessness that Abdul – who, for everyone we know, may have been an extremely nice man – comes across like Samuel L Jackson’s turncoat character from Django Unchained.
In he trots, dressed in tailor-made clothes, teaching the Queen to write lies about herself in Urdu, serving her jelly and sandwiches, kissing her feet – while his people die of poverty and hunger back home.
Going in, really the only fear I had was that the film would make the same mistakes as Gurinder Chadha’s monumentally misjudged Viceroy’s House, a film that reduced the Independence battle to an bout of Downton Abbey. But boy, does Victoria & Abdul lower the bar. At least Viceroy’s House had the decency to know what sort of film it was.
The blame, as it will, rests squarely on the shoulders of director Stephen Frears, who, for me, directs too many films. And not in the adorable way that Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood direct way too many films – at least their movies are unmistakably theirs – however in a means that either produces legitimate brilliance (such as Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, The Queen, and Philomena), and utterly baffling stuff (this, and the weird Lance Armstrong biopic no person saw).
Presented with the opportunity to make intelligent statements about the controversial practices of the British Raj and class divide – which is, even today, a way to obtain great embarrassment for both our countries – Frears’ film, instead, chooses to produce a dick joke.
In this particular image released by Focus Features, Judi Dench, right, and Ali Fazal appear in a scene from Victoria and Abdul.
Perhaps I am reading too much involved with it. Perhaps it was always designed to be a harmless piece of fluff. Certainly, Judi Dench (who interestingly played the same character in another film based on an eerily similar premise) still commands the presence most A-list Hollywood stars would overthrow governments for. And against all odds, Ali Fazal delivers (at least partially) a restrained performance, in a film that pretends the term doesn’t exist.
But don’t allow that fool you. You shouldn’t be used by the delightful sight of Queen Victoria speaking in broken Hindi, and do not fall for a dreamy-eyed Ali Fazal reciting the decadent history of the Taj Mahal. Victoria & Abdul is a shameful try to normalise evil. Everyone involved could, and really should, have done better.
Watch the Victoria & Abdul trailer here