Screening Out Of Competition and soon to hit German cinemas at the end of this month (Sep 28), Victoria And Abdul sees British director Stephen Frears reteam with Judi Dench after 2013‘s Philomena, and all there is to say is: God. Save. Dame. Judi… from further shrug-worthy period dramas.
The 82-year old national treasure dons the garb once more as Queen Victoria, following her Oscar-nominated turn as the monarch in Mrs. Brown, which celebrates its 20th this year. In Victoria And Abdul, we witness the unlikely friendship the elderly Queen strikes up with young Indian servant Abdul Karim (Bollywood actor Ali Fazal): he is a Muslim clerk working in Agra who is selected, chiefly because of his height, to travel to London to present her Majesty with a ceremonial coin during a banquet. He makes the trip with the far more reluctant Mohammed (Four Lions standout Adeel Akhtar) and quickly makes an impression when he drops to the floor to kiss the royal hoof during a dinner reception where “barbaric” jelly is served. Soon, Abdul becomes her “Mushi”, much to the chagrin of the Queen’s self-serving entourage and Prime Minister (Michael Gambon). Her newly appointed adviser teaches her Urdu, travels with her to Florence to hear Puccini sing (a brief but ridiculously memorable cameo from a heavily mascaraed and mustachioed Simon Callow) and above all restores a certain joie de vivre to her routinely existence.
Written by Lee Hall and based on Karim’s journals, discovered in 2010, the tone of the film is very quickly set with the opening text: “Based on real events… mostly.” It is an overly familiar period drama that uses John Madden’s far superior Mrs. Brown as a stencil to craft an elegant-looking but utterly toothless story that isn’t so much interested in exploring some dark historical truths but rather keen to inject some whimsy into the colonialist mix. Colonialism made cozy, à la Viceroy’s House, if you will.
It rolls along at a brisk pace, never once boring but crucially never subverts any expectations: the English are condescending, the Scottish are drunks, Eddie Izzard – here playing Bertie – can satisfyingly ham it up, and the Indian population were oppressed. But as long as we throw in a few gags about English cuisine and burqas, and it’s all fine. Let bygones be bygones! Even if Frears does poke fun at the Empire, where moustaches were mandatory, racial prejudices tightly embraced and impoverished London was trumpeted by “stupid aristocratic fools” as “civilization”, Victoria And Abdul is far from the slyly subversive sequel the filmmaker thought he was delivering.
“I thought to myself: what film would Donald Trump want to see?” said a pleased-looking Frears during the press conference. Granted, the film laudably champions diversity, but never achieves the relevance it clearly yearns for. There are a few timely parallels teased out on post-Brexit attitudes and rise of hate-filled rhetoric aimed at the Muslim community, but by focusing so much on giving a predictably wonderful Dench the barnstorming encore she deserves, no one bothered to give the second half of the film’s title some character development. We learn next-to-nothing about Abdul and the hardships he has endured while the Empire occupies his native land. Instead, the accommodating and cheery stranger from the “subcontinent” serves as an egregious and underwritten narrative device to paint the picture of a somewhat implausibly progressive monarch who champions the tolerance we so desperately need right now.
We’re a far cry from the pioneeringly complex interpersonal British-Asian relationships Frears explored in My Beautiful Laundrette, and if Tangerine Nightmare The First understood the concept of irony or a plan backfiring, he’d be chuckling away to himself.
So who will want to see it? Mums just out of Downton Abbey rehab will lap it up. Those getting the shakes waiting for season 2 of The Crown will welcome it as a cushy fix. It will tick all the necessary boxes for those who like their BBC prestige dramas lavish and limp. It might also possibly land the leading lady a more-than-deserved nomination come awards season, but safe to say more could have been done to mine this previously suppressed story for edgier content. Some lines did tease more interesting avenues: “Present a medal to the oppressor?” asks a baffled Mohammed, whose dramatic arc ends up more enticing than Abdul’s. But it was not to be; best to quickly drop them for a sentimental wrap-up that will be all the raj with Oscar voters and puddle-deep, Gump-shaped musings like “Life is a carpet: we weave in and out to make a pattern”.
God save this reviewer from Lèse-majesté and more shitty puns.