Monday 13 July 2020

Movie Review: Victoria And Abdul (2017)

A drama with hints of humour, Victoria And Abdul chronicles the unique relationship between the aging monarch and the Indian who rises to prominence in her court.

It's 1887, and India is under British rule. In Agra, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a lowly government clerk. He is plucked from obscurity and selected to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial medal as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Along with fellow Indian Mohammad Bakhsh (Adeel Akhtar), Abdul travels to England and participates in an elaborate state dinner. Victoria is in poor health, exhausted and resentful of all the duties of her role. 

Eye contact with Abdul triggers her curiosity and she demands he join her staff. He impresses with his confidence and she taps into his knowledge to better understand the culture of India before promoting him to Munshi, or personal teacher. Abdul starts instructing the Queen on the Urdu language, and she insists he relocate his family to England. However, Victoria's close relationship with a Muslim Indian is perceived by some as scandalous, and her inner circle of influential men, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) and doctor James Reid (Paul Higgins), start plotting against Abdul.

Based on a true story uncovered and researched by author Shrabani Basu, Victoria And Abdul explores the Queen's friendship with a man who rose from humble visiting servant to close confidant in the final years of her reign. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film is a traditional story of a stranger in a strange land, here elevated to the highest reaches of Empire with the added zing of a cultural divide.

The Lee Hall screenplay explores the central complex relationship between Victoria and Abdul in careful textures, starting with mutual respect and admiration but evolving into something more, an unstated passionate tension somewhere between her motherly love and his reverential devotion. 

Although this is a story about two people, the Queen emerges as the more compelling character. Victoria's arc start as an emotionally and physically drained monarch, depressed enough to welcome the boost from the visiting tall Indian with a glint in his eye. She strides into progressive territory, demonstrating openness to learning about Indian and Muslim culture, and setting herself apart from her family, politicians and inner circle by staunchly defending Abdul against racially motivated denunciations.

Judi Dench is a dominant presence, and the film rides on her performance. Victoria's steely determination to stare down detractors cuts through the sometimes repetitive scenes, Dench revelling in the role of a self-aware and resolute ruler. Ali Fazal is fine as Abdul Karim, but suffers from limited definition, and his presence fades in the final act as Frears focuses on the distasteful efforts to undermine the distinguished Indian.

The old-fashioned storytelling is enlivened by a luxurious visual feast. The various royal abodes burst to life, and both the interior banquets halls, brimming with hundreds of staff members, and the exquisitely landscaped exteriors reflect the lavish Empire lifestyle. 

A simple story bathed in opulence, Victoria And Abdul salutes the audacity to lock eyes and the courage to influence hearts.

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