Film review by Jason Day of Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench as an aged, infirm Queen Victoria and her real-life, close friendship with her Muslim teacher Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
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Many years after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is still in mourning and has gained a huge amount of weight, owing to the large number of official meals she has to sit through.
Catching her eye at dinner one day is Abdul Karim, a lowly Muslim clerk from India who has been brought to her to give a present. He is tall, handsome and as greedy and obsequious as anyone who circles the Queen for favour. They soon become close friends and she promotes him to be her official teacher in Muslim culture.
Scandalising court, her family and courtiers launch an investigation into his past in an effort to oust him and restore their own fortune hunting.
Review, by Jason Day
As time goes by Queen Victoria, the British monarch associated with being permanently ‘unamused’, morally upright and family centred is shown to be quite the opposite.
In a never ending sequence of film and TV accounts of her life, she has been revealed as an emotionally manipulative, child hating, highly sexed woman.
In this drama, based on the book Victoria and Abdul by Shrabani Basu (yes, this is also a TV programme) she bucked the White Imperialist trend of the day by growing intimately, almost romantically, attached to her Muslim servant and later teacher Abdul Karim.
Very much against the social norms of the day, when different ethnic groups would have had little interaction with the higher echelons of polite British society.
Although there is a little about them that is polite. Slamming doors in Karim’s face, keeping his friend in England when the climate is obviously killing him, inspecting Abdul’s genitalia when there are whispers about a sexual infection, this England really is as “barbaric” as Karim’s pal describes its food in the opening scenes (the irony of English people viewing these “coloured” men in the same light is frequently highlighted).
Food and eating form extended satirical contrasts about the differences between India and England throughout the film.
From Queen Victoria noisily slurping soup and dribbling most of it down her chin during an olympic state dinner, to her doctor commenting that her diet needs more fibre as “the royal colon needs a little roughage”, this film starts as a broad gastronomic spoof.
It is a film very much of two halves in fact, the first being a lightly amusing (if rather infantile) comedy of manners, etiquette and gorging.
The second plunges into a deep, emotional drama about social position and the longing for real, quality companionship. It also features a protracted death scene.
One can almost imagine Oscar Wilde having penned the first half, tittering delightfully as he describes Queen Vic’s eyes widening suggestively as a brown, phallic jelly presented by her Indian servant wobbles from side to side.
Dench completes her Oscar nominated performances as Victoria, having previously played her in the more accomplished but less fun Mrs Brown (1997) by adding further shading to this multi-faceted, complex person. She is now an old woman looked upon and judged by many, but understood by few.
Fazal complements her with a soulful turn as a man who, despite his garrulous and manipulative nature, came closer to appreciating Victoria’s virtues and needs than anyone else.
Frears as a director is getting used to handling this sort of nifty, psychologically astute monarchal drama after the Oscar-winning The Queen (2010), but the accent on cheap, music hall humour stops this from being something special.
Cast & credits
Director: Stephen Frears. (112 mins). BBC Films/Cross Street Films/Perfect World/Working Title. (PG)
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron,Tracy Seaward.
Writer: Lee Hall.
Camera: Danny Cohen.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Sets: Alan MacDonald.
Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Piggott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Simon Callow.