There are certain figures in history who have been played in movies a million times. I’ve discussed the fact we’ve had approximately 2000 Winston Churcill portrayals over the years and certain other famous people such as Elizabeth I and John F. Kennedy. One of the other famous figures to be constantly on our screens is Queen Victoria. There’s even a TV show on about her now! This is because as a long-reigning female Monarch, there is plenty of interest about here and it’s just recent enough to make it feel relatable. So can Victoria and Abdul find a new slant on this much analyzed leader?
Coming towards the end of her reign, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, Skyfall) is depressed and simply waiting to die. However she is perked up when she meets Indian servant Abdul (Ali Fazal, Furious 7) who starts to teach her about India.
The best way to describe this movie is quaint. This movie is not really interested in being a massive period epic, it simply wants to to be an entertaining portrayal of a story you probably didn’t know about before. And the movie does keep you interested because it has a lively script. I’m always scared of watching period movies because I always worry that they are going to be as stuffy as the characters in them, all serious and never really cutting loose enough for the viewers to have fun. This movie at least acknowledges that the audience can’t just be occupied by being impressed by the period detail, it has an energetic script which allows the characters to show personality and even make you laugh from time to time. I laughed more at this film than I did at some comedies I’ve seen recently.
The performances are also very good from everyone involved. Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is such obvious casting that I wonder if this movie started from that choice and then just found a story to build around that casting choice. But while I could go on about Judi Dench for a long time, let’s praise an actor who perhaps hasn’t picked as much praise as her because Ali Fazal is also very good in this movie. He just has this warm smile which makes him incredibly likeable from the start and make you get why Victoria would warm to him when she has become sick of everyone else. Even in scenes that are more serious, Fazal is not fazed and does well. And he powers through some of the weird stuff the script hands him like how he completely ignores all of the concerns of Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, Four Lions) despite all of them being very legitamate.
It’s just a very pleasant film to sit through. Everything is shot very nicely by director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liasons) and it’s just a nice film to sit through. As I’ve said before the script is lively enough to make things go at a decent pace and the performances from the rest of the cast make even scenes that are fairly trite watchable. This is where the film excels, at being a very nice watch which means in the future it will be rolled out a lot by TV channels. I imagine this film did well enough at the Box Office to get it’s money back but it will keep raking it in when BBC2 decide to put it in its rotation. It’s inoffensive in the extreme but that’s not necesarilly a bad thing.
The film does not really offer much new though. The film does have an interesting concept at its core by showing this unlikely friendship which preaches that we should be more tolerant of others, and boy do we need that, but it never really develops anything more than that. There are hints that a romance might take place but I think that everyone involved would have been beheaded if that actually took place. And so the only revelation this movie has is that Britain was terrible to India and Victorians were racists. And if I’m honest, we already knew that. You only need a passing knowledge of history to know how crappy Britain treat India, you can watch the poor but educational Viceroy’s House for more information, and Victorians being racist was assumed. It’s not really as shocking as the film says it is.
And the way the plot goes is very cliched and not that interesting. Victoria and Abdul start getting friendly each other with lots of Victorian grumbling. There is then a fake out where Victoria feels betrayed by Abdul and sends him home, but that doesn’t even last long enough for it to have any sort of impact. Then the Victorians start doing more than grumbling and you know exactly where it is going. It does appear that the real story followed this sort of trend but in this movie it’s just a story we’ve seen a lot, basically a forbidden romance without the romance. Not that interesting.
Victoria and Abdul is a nice movie to sit through. There’s darkness at the edges but it wants to be an uplifting story about friendship crossing race and class and it largely succeeds at that. It will find a fanbase and I see it being repeated on TV a lot over the next few years. But the fact it is nice doesn’t mean you can ignore the issues it has. Once the movie has told you that this was a friendship that existed, it doesn’t really have much more to tell you other than people didn’t like the fact they were friends. And while it’s nice to see this friendship, it can’t be the only thing in a movie.