Yikes. Any film that ends with an Indian subject kissing the bust of Queen Victoria is bound to get into trouble, and Victoria & Abdul deserves it, I’m sorry to say. According to its version of events, colonialism was only terrible for subjects who couldn’t acclimatize to its conditions, and those who could had a dandy go of it. Such was the case for Abdul Karim, a prison clerk who is plucked from his work and told to deliver a ceremonial coin to the queen for her Golden Jubilee. He follows protocol right up until he leaves her table, briefly making eye contact against orders. Later, when delivering a dessert jelly to her, he spontaneously kisses her feet—and from that point on, he becomes one of her most cherished confidantes.
The film doesn’t profess to follow the historical record religiously. A quick Wikipedia search tells me that the pretense of the coin was most likely an invention (Abdul was apparently hired to be Victoria’s servant right away, rather than after endearing himself to her). Still, the way Abdul is portrayed here, full of childlike wonder and benign platitudes about the adventure of life, rings with insincerity, and I have a hard time believing he worshiped Victoria without any hint of ulterior motives. More believable is the hostility of her household staff and son, heir apparent Bertie. Their overt racism towards Abdul certainly jibes with imperialist ideology of the day, but here their villainy is completely without nuance. Everyone but the queen hates Abdul. Okay, fine. There’s more to these people than that. Bertie, especially, is portrayed like a foolish ingrate, yet by all accounts he was a popular monarch after his mother died. So why isn’t that evident here?
The only character written with any semblance of competency is Victoria herself. I particularly liked how the film treats her mental illness, with scenes of servants literally having to pull her out of bed every morning because she doesn’t have the will to keep living. There’s also a nice contrast to a scene later on, when Bertie threatens to declare her insane and she firmly draws the line between her depression and insanity. “I am anything but insane” she growls, and the finality of the admonishment proves it. She is simply an old, lonely woman, whose loved ones have all died. Why can’t she have a friend like Abdul to keep her company?
Victoria’s relationship with Abdul is the only thing the film treats frankly. It doesn’t pretend that it isn’t fetishized, or that her friendship with the man leads to changes in the colonial power structure. It doesn’t. He taught her Urdu. He listened to her, while she listened to him. Maybe he gave political advice (we don’t know). For Victoria, he was the only one who treated her like a person, and I guess that’s enough. The one thing that irked me, though, was how enlightened Victoria was made out to be compared to her intolerant household. I really don’t think she was that tolerant, but here she looks almost saintly when juxtaposed with the antagonists.
Judi Dench unsurprisingly carries this on her shoulders, and does a mighty fine job of it. She brings a lot of compassion to this unhappy monarch, and beautifully completes the arc she began in 1997’s Mrs Brown. The rest of the film? Not one of Stephen Frears’ finest hours, I’m afraid.