“Victoria & Abdul” is the latest entry in the surprisingly crowded “British imperialism drama” genre, following on films like “Viceroy’s House” and “A United Kingdom,” in which a white English person finds themselves in a type of Odd Couple-dynamic with a person from a country under colonialist rule and forms a close bond with them. It is the latest film to take a story that begs to serve as a criticism of a power-hungry system of governing and instead uses it as a trite dramedy. While certainly well-acted and intermittently endearing, it completely misses and sometimes seemingly intentionally obfuscates what should have been the thesis of its entire narrative.
The film tells the true story of the friendship between Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, “For Here or To Go?”). Historically, the two were incredibly close, with Karim acting as a sort of teacher to the Queen on subjects relating to Indian culture. Before her death, she would have knighted him as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order despite the friction it caused with members of her house.
To state the obvious, Dench is fantastic as Queen Victoria – reprising the role she played in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown” — and she brings all the gravitas and emotional complexity that one would expect of an actress of her regal reputation. The script is rather ham-fisted in its treatment of her, climaxing in the most Oscar-baiting speech of the year, but the flaws have nothing to do with Dench’s work. As Abdul, Fazal is perfectly charming and shares a nice camaraderie with Adeel Akhtar (“The Big Sick”) in earlier scenes, but again due to the writing, he comes across as disappointingly one-dimensional. He is all too rarely given the opportunity to do anything other than smile and offer praise and wisdom to Victoria.
It is clearly that script, written by Lee Hall (“War Horse”), which is the film’s biggest stumbling block. “Victoria & Abdul” is fine if all too slight in its first half as it deals with the developing friendship between its two titular characters. It’s in the second half that it devolves into a series of blustery, tittering confrontations between Victoria and her staff, all but completely abandoning the bond at the core of the story and robbing Abdul of all agency. He becomes a background player in a film in which he is ostensibly one of the stars.
Audiences are also given the always reliable “No one knows how hard it is to be King/Queen” storyline. In a more well-managed script, this perhaps could have come off as a humanization of the character and a key reason her relationship with Abdul became so important to her: a cure for her depression. Instead it immediately compares her to a prisoner and a slave and fails to see the borderline offensive irony there.
And on that note, it is impossible to talk about “Victoria & Abdul” without discussing how badly it botches what should have been a commentary on British colonialism. It goes out of its way to avoid any overt criticism of the topic, and any condemnation plays much more as a deflection onto much more blatant racism. Indeed, it all but sidelines the one character to ever speak up about it, only bringing him back into the fold when it is emotionally convenient for the plot. Even when the subject is broached, it is always played for a laugh, the better to let those still benefitting today from the lasting effects of the system sleep easy at night.