Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire for just under 64 years and for most of that time she was a widow who wore her heartache literally on her sleeve. In her later years, she was coaxed out of her melancholic stupor first by John Brown, a brusque Scottish ghillie, and a few years after his death by Abdul Karim, an exotic Indian Muslim.
In both cases, Victoria gained much-needed attention and support from men well below her class. They were looked down upon by her family, the aristocracy and her servants. No one understood her desperate need to connect to another human being and how the simpler lives of these two men felt so palpably real and honest to her.
Victoria and Abdul explores the relationship between the Queen and Karim and the concerted efforts of those around Victoria to rid her of the man.
The film has appeal because it sheds light on a story that was not supposed to be told. After Victoria’s death, her family did their best to expunge the relationship from history – thankfully they failed.
In the opening moments of the film, we are told that this is based on a real story… mostly… and it’s good the filmmakers make that qualification as history is manipulated considerably by them to create a feel-good melodrama.
The Queen (played by Judi Dench) is tired and fed up with life until Karim arrives. She is fascinated by his tales of the exotic land he comes from and quickly gets him to teach her his native tongue.
It is true that Victoria took her responsibilities to all her subjects seriously and abhorred racism – this side of her Dench gets absolutely right.
It stands in stark contrast to the patronising attitude of the British aristocracy to the Queen’s subjects and their quite revolting racism. It is disturbing now to think how proud the Victorians were of their Empire and the vast number of countries and peoples they ruled over, yet at the same time viewing those subjects – well the brown ones – with contempt.
This film is not kind to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), he comes across as boorish, petulant and frankly cruel. Some of this is undoubtedly true, but we must remember that much of Bertie’s faults were brought on by the quite brutish treatment meted out to him as a young boy and adolescent by his schoolmasters. This conduct was prescribed by his own father and fully endorsed by Victoria herself. So as much as she garners sympathy from the viewer with her maternal feelings and generosity to her servants, she contributed to the dysfunction in her own family. It is not surprising therefore that Karim was the object of such jealousy from her offspring.
In terms of a historical retelling, Victoria and Abdul makes interesting viewing, and has a great cast – Ali Fazal as Karim, in particular, stands out. But over all, the movie falls just a little flat, it doesn’t have the spark of Mrs Brown (the other biopic about Victoria also starring Dench). The drama is a little cliched and as much as I love Judi Dench, I think she forgot that the old careworn Queen was still feisty to the end.
Victoria and Abdul
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
Directed by: Stephen Frears
In cinemas 15th September 2017