If you are offended by portrayals of non-pc British upper-class superiority and power over those seen as less ‘fortunate’ than themselves, Victoria and Abdul is likely to get your hackles up. If, however, you enjoy wonderfully atmospheric historical dramas, with minute attention to exquisite period detail, then director Stephen Frears’ recreation of a well documented period from the closing years of Victorian Britain is just for you.
Based on real events, the film tells the story of a young Indian government clerk – Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) – who is brought from his homeland to present a special commemorative medallion to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Forbidden to make any contact with her majesty, the young Indian catches her eye at a state banquet leading to them forming a deep and lasting friendship, that shocked Victoria’s court and the English aristocracy of the day.
Victoria and Abdul is the perfect example of what British film, and particularly that made by BBC Films (the film production arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation), does best – detailed, evocative and engrossing period dramas, which make historical events come alive on screen. This witty (frequently laugh out loud funny) retelling of the unique bond the ageing ‘Empress of India’ formed with the lowly Indian office clerk – brought from his country simply to make a presentation to the Queen and then ‘disappear’ again – is not only wonderfully moving, but also casts new light on the oft overlooked relationship between Britain and her overseas dominions during the late nineteenth century.
Obvious factors aside – the film’s depiction of Victoria in her fading years as a sad,lonely character, unable to trust anyone, especially her arrogant son Bertie (brought sharply to life by Eddie Izzard) and deferential members of her household – it’s the way it depicts the Indian people in relation to the ruling British class which sticks in the memory. As is often the case it’s those who consider themselves morally and socially superior (in this case the British), who are the most unpleasant, whilst those thought poorer in the eyes of the world are in fact richer in every way.
When a cast includes such luminaries of the British stage and screen as Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and Tim Pigott-Smith, there could only have ever been one choice for Victoria – a Queen who’s very presence in a room instilled fear and awe on all present. There are reasons why Dench is one of not only Britain’s, but also the world’s, most feted actresses, which you can see here as she commands the screen in every scene she appears in. Fazal as the young Indian – bewildered by the new country he comes to, but not in the least overawed by the lady he befriends – is also striking, and the two play off each other marvellously with their enactment of the burgeoning relationship between the Queen and her companion.
There are of course negatives. As said previously – viewed in the light of what could be seen as today’s over emphasis on political correctness – the film is extremely racist and to some, probably offensive. However one should remember the period in history in which the film is set. Though this may not excuse the way in which the ‘superior’ English white people treat the Indians in the film with contempt at best and complete disregard in general – or for that matter the way the Indians, on the whole, accept the status quo – it does go some way to explaining the characters behaviour towards eachother. Seen in the light of this the resultant narrative is a wonderfully succinct, sharp, even shocking portrayal of a period in British history which left a lot to be desired.
Viewing the film you may think the story and its treatment more suited to a Sunday night TV drama, than big screen presentation: though the film’s storyline takes viewers from far flung India to Balmoral in the remote Scottish Highlands – via Buckingham Palace and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – much of the action is restricted to housebound (or ‘castelbound’) drawing-room drama. Perhaps. But even-so there is no denying that seldom was history more lushly portrayed than in Frears’ wonderfully evocative bio-pic.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall (screenplay), Shrabani Basu (based on the book by)
Stars: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon,
Simon Callow, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith
Runtime: 112 mins
Country: UK / USA