Stephen Frears once again dramatizes the past in Victoria & Abdul.
Like so many movies of this age, Victoria & Abdul speaks about human prejudice and the wanton savagery pre-programmed into our social preferences, but, in fact, I think it is more about the fear of growing old and lonely, outliving all our loved ones and gradually disintegrating into a shell of our former selves. It is this fear of dying that led Victoria to do outlandish things in her later years, like falling asleep during state dinners and keeping a lowly Indian servant as her closest companion.
This is another biographical movie directed by Stephen Frears and headlines yet another effortless performance by Judi Dench, who, as M in the Bond movies, always exercised a firm hand and a sharp tongue. Here, as a withering monarch, she is like M’s great-great-grandmother draped in what looks like doilies. She is caring and inquisitive, but may God bless your soul if you try to cross her.
On the celebration of her Golden Jubilee, she is presented with a ceremonial coin by two Indians, snatched from their home in Agra and shipped off to the land of their colonisers. One of them, the tall and handsome one, is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Almost at once, he catches the queen’s eye and she is stricken by a fearful fascination with this bearded foreign man.
Abdul is charming and intelligent, and beguiles Victoria with tales of his home, a land Victoria’s empire has conquered that she has never visited or even learnt about. She is told of the story of the Taj Mahal. She is taught Hindi and Urdu. She is introduced to Indian spices and fruit. And when she sends for Abdul’s wife, she is startled to find her hidden beneath impenetrable black silk. It’s like stepping over the threshold into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Victoria’s interest in what her subordinates consider to be an inferior being creates tension in the palace, and soon her subjects and eldest son, Bertie (a somewhat puzzling Eddie Izzard), are threatening to resign. We could debate the merits of their consternation for years, but the central inherent racism of the English aristocracy works, within the confines of the film, to bolster our support for Abdul, who may not be the most upstanding young man but is certainly the right elixir for a waning old lady in desperate need of a strong shoulder to lean on. Dench and Fazal share some real chemistry, and while the bickering between Victoria’s subjects adds spice to the proceedings, it’s the scenes between the monarch and companion that really pop with drama.
Frears has made some delightful and intelligent films based on the lives of real people and seems to have a deft touch when it comes to dealing with the English crown. In 2006 he made The Queen, one of the greatest movies about the fragile relationship between royalty and its people. Victoria & Abdul is not one of his best. It slips sometimes into sentimentality and lacks the professional stroke present in his earlier work, but it is held aloft by the charm and honesty of its two leads, who both see the error of Britain’s ways, but are too caught up in the formidable character of the other to really do anything about it.
Victoria and Abdul is available in Australian cinemas from September 14
Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017