"I AM CANTANKEROUS, GREEDY, FAT. I AM PERHAPS DISAGREEABLY ATTACHED TO POWER, BUT I AM ANYTHING BUT INSANE"
There has always been a fascination to know more about certain historical figures, especially ones who are surrounded by great fame, infamy, and mythology. Indeed through the historical film, audiences (particularly those not keen on reading large biographical volumes), are given the opportunity to delve more into these widely known people even if sometimes the history itself is liberally or anachronistically presented. Director Stephen Frears’ latest film Victoria & Abdul is thus exactly that kind of movie. Historical and generally informative, but also with an obvious tweaking of some historical authenticity, it should not be seen as a totally accurate portrait but rather as an idealized glimpse into another time. But though it is not the first or last film to tackle its history this way (Braveheart, Titanic for example), Victoria & Abdul maintains a great heart at its core and delivers an emotional and funny story that will at the very least encourage further research into these events and the people behind them.
Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, “Victoria & Abdul” is a charming tale of the last years of British monarch Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her controversial friendship with a Muslim Indian man named Abdul Karim. For 14 years between 1887 and her death, the aging Victoria found an unlikely companion in Abdul who went from being a servant to her own personal “Munshi” (the Urdu word for teacher). Instructing her in everything from Q’uranic studies to lessons in the Urdu language, the bond between the two grows increasingly stronger, though it is not without its consequences. Members of the Royal Household including Victoria’s son and the future Edward VII are aghast with the relationship and are determined to put a stop to it through any means necessary.
Despite great power and decorated titles like Empress of India, life at the ‘top’ was a lonely affair. Between presiding over a slew of engagements and being huddled over at nearly every instant, the Queen was looking for not just an escape but a confidant. Enter the foreign Abdul and Victoria finds unexpectedly at this late stage of her life a new reason to continue living.
Dame Judi Dench returns once more to the role of Queen Victoria ( a part she first played in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown) and as is characteristic of her is a true shining light. As the portly and elderly ruler, she is cantankerous, opinionated but also surprisingly delicate. It’s a personification she has mastered and through her work brings a true vulnerability to this at times mythical monarch. A subject of numerous films Victoria has been profiled many times (most recently with Emily Blunt in 2009’s The Young Victoria), but while other films may spotlight the bigger issues of her reign, “Victoria & Abdul” chooses this little known chapter of her life and brings with it a more human picture of royalty.
And so where the film succeeds in this humane treatment of its characters, it falters a bit in its historical narrative. A surface level interpretation would indicate that Victoria was actually a great progressive as the 19th century came to a close, while most of those around her were bigots and staunchly conservative. In reality, Victoria had her moments of beliefs now considered backwards including her opposition to women’s suffrage, so seeing her as an enlightened figure able to look beyond Abdul’s skin color and ethnicity is a bit lionizing. As we know from previous historically inspired films surface presentations are often not totally truthful; certainly, Victoria had a genuine affection for Abdul but perhaps it wasn’t as noble and progressive as the film portrays. The opening of the film begins with “Based on a true story…. mostly” and so the filmmakers acknowledge immediately that parts of this tale will indeed be altered.
But in spite of this feeling of neatly packaged history, “Victoria & Abdul” does offer real entertainment and feel good moments. Director Stephen Frear reunites with Judi Dench (Philomena in 2013) and returns to his history of helming films based on real-life stories (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Queen). With well-made set and costume designs and a talented cast led most assuredly by Judi Dench, Frears adds another good title to his filmography.
As a historical movie “Victoria & Abdul” definitely alters its source material a tad, and though that is may be seen as a disservice, this doesn’t stop it from being effective. It’s a charming little film about the power of friendship and love and of the artificial boundaries created around us. Judi Dench shines again and though her Queen Victoria can be seen as partly fictionalized, her character like this movie is one full of great heart and warmth. Whether or not the actual monarch was this personally benovolent can’t be fully known, but it is nice to at least speculate that this very special relationship between a Queen and her Munshi could have such beauty.