August 18, 2019
Victoria & Abdul (2017)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Ali Fazal, Judi Dench, Paul Higgins

What it's about. Based on a true story. Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has sat on the English throne for 50 years. As she is also Empress of India, part of the celebration includes the arrival of two men from India, Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).

Their presence is intended to be brief and ceremonial, but the long-widowed Victoria takes an immediate liking to Abdul, who is young, tall, handsome, good-natured, and exuberant. Soon, Abdul becomes the queen's favorite servant, provoking outraged and racist jealousy from her secretary (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor (Paul Higgins), the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), and even the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon).

Their plots against Abdul seldom gain traction. Abdul even survives his lies about how Indian Muslims adore Victoria. Abdul is promoted to the position of Munshi (teacher) to the Queen, whose interest in Hindustani and the culture of India now occupies her free time.

The elderly queen dies in 1901, some 13 years after Abdul's arrival. Abdul's correspondence with Victoria is confiscated and destroyed, and Abdul loses his court positions and residence. He returns to India to live out the remainder of life quietly.

How others will see it. Judi Dench had played Queen Victoria before, in Mrs. Brown (1997). That film was about Victoria's platonic but romantic relationship with Scottish manly-man John Brown (Billy Connolly). It is natural to compare the two films. Mrs. Brown has the better awards (Best Actress Golden Globe) and the higher user rating (7.2 versus 6.7 for Victoria & Abdul).

But the present film does have more user votes (26K versus 12K), and the user rating does rise to 7.3 (out of 10) among women over 45. Men under 45 are less amused, and grade it only 6.6.

The higher ratings for Mrs. Brown are partly because that movie was a drama, while Victor & Abdul is generally a comedy. It may also be that audiences are uncomfortable with its politically correct message that those around Queen Victoria were racists who treated Abdul and Mohammed poorly. And there is ageism, since Dench is two decades older here.

But there are many highly positive user reviews that heap praise upon the venerable Judi Dench, the most respected actor in the cast. Fazal garners less attention, though he is likable throughout.

How I felt about it. For me, the focus should be on Frears, as much as Dench. Frears directed The Grifters, a dynamite character study. High Fidelity and The Snapper are nearly as good.

More relevant to Victor & Abdul, Frears also directed The Queen a movie about Queen Victoria's best-known great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Given Frears success with two-word film titles, it is no wonder he used an ampersand to separate Victoria from Abdul.

As the queen's staff conspires against outsider Abdul, it is obvious that their dislike for him is principally because he is Indian and Muslim. Had Victoria's confident been, instead, an attractive white woman, their reaction would have been much tamer. Their worries that Queen Victoria's Indian interests have gone too far would have greater relevance if she were not merely a figurehead.

It is interesting that the initial attitudes of Abdul and Mohammed parallel their ultimate fates. Abdul, who has a positive attidute about England, is generously rewarded by the Queen. Mohammed, who despises the English Empire, dies miserably and practically as the queen's prisoner.