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Victoria & Abdul – Review


Release Date: 22 September 2017 [USA]
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall [Screenplay by] - Shrabani Basu [Novel]
Cast: Judi Dench - Ali Fazal - Tim Pigott-Smith



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Posted October 1, 2017 by

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Victoria & Abdul Review:

It is often said that if John Brown freed Queen Victoria from Prince Albert and released her inner capacity for hedonism and pleasure, then Abdul Karim enabled her curiosity and for an Empress of India, who never did set foot in India, widened her horizons considerably. It definitely was, as with many of Victoria’s intimate relationships, completely unburdened by the restrictions of court etiquette or social norms.

For a person with so little concern for convention and such a complicated attitude towards tradition, Queen Victoria left a legacy of extraordinary imperialism, a dynastic web that would drag Europe into the First World War and remarkable industrial and social change.

Yet, it is really hard to determine what is genuine about Victoria. The besotted teenager, the feisty, moody wife, ‘the little fatherless girl’ as she described herself and the monarch remade, emerging from the ashes of her widowhood to form the unlikeliest of intimate companionships with the unlikeliest and most unpredictable of people. These are all episodes of her long and turbulent reign and they all tell a slightly different story. The 2017 biographical drama ‘Victoria & Abdul’ outlines the last episode of the monarch’s life and her extraordinary relationship with an Indian servant, who became her last great male dependency.

victoria and abdul together

Abdul Karim, as played by Ali Fazal, arrives from Agra to the royal household to present Queen Victoria, exquisitely portrayed by Judi Dench, with a ceremonial coin for her golden jubilee. As he and his fellow servant, who for the most part adopts the role of a Disney sidekick, morally evaluating Abdul’s actions with a distinctive dose of sarcasm, struggle to cope with the prejudice, cultural intolerance and racism of the British royal court, they fall under the radar of the Queen. It is apparent that Victoria, overwhelmed by her royal duties and now having outlived both her beloved Albert and John Brown, is despairing in the lonely, predictable and stuffy gilded cage that is her routine. She is intrigued by the young and handsome Indian, who seems to want to be in her favour. There is something almost scandalously naive and platonic about their relationship, deprived of all sensual temptation, but rather based on mutual respect and genuine curiosity about the character and background of the other. It builds up a relationship on many levels, as the British monarch starts to soak up all of Abdul’s exotic and fascinatingly distant knowledge of India: monarch-servant, pupil-teacher, mother-son. It creates a remarkable in its origin and purpose friendship, which would cause scandal, disapproval and almost domestic revolt. For breaking up with convention, Queen Victoria would endure a landslide of criticism.

the real victoria and abdul

Stephen Frears’ adaptation, based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, is said to serve as a sequel to the 1997 film ‘Mrs Brown,’ where the role of Queen Victoria was again played by Dench. As she reprised her role as the iconic British monarch, it is hard to overlook the professionalism, authenticity and sincerity in her acting. Dench manages to encapsulate the complexity of her character, delivering a performance of outstanding devotion, resilience, responsibility and dignity, that befit a queen. She carries the crown proudly, but sadly, she carries most of the film’s value as well.

Fazal’s performance and the portrayal of his character were slightly disappointing, taking into the account the controversy around Karim’s personality and his exact relationship with Queen Victoria. It was confusingly complex. The two-dimensional nature of his attitudes towards British imperialism, India, the English and even Queen Victoria herself, which were probably intended to reflect on the challenges and legacies of colonialism, backfired disastrously. Fazal plays the part of a man, who appears to the immediately and notably ‘corrupted’ by the temptations and opportunities that are opening around him. Although there is no direct reference to ruthless and naked ambition, Karim’s actions largely make him look like he is just part of the gamble to stay in favour at court.

queen victoria and abdul

There is quite a bit of strategy in courtly love. If Abdul Karim’s relationship with Victoria is formed in a humane, personal and almost ordinary way, a significant part of life in the royal household is about manipulation. Where court rumour and scandal feature in the film, they are employed to strengthen and emphasise the sincere nature of their friendship. For all its oddities, this most unlikely of friendships is true and efforts have been made to give across a message of real devotion. This is where Frears’ film scores highly. The conversations, the exchange of knowledge, the curiosity and even the quarrels reveal a truly devoted and in many ways admirable friendship, which occurred against all odds and circumstances.

The exact historical accuracy of these depicted circumstances can indeed be a subject to debate, but being slavishly in service of accuracy is not the point of this film. Despite some of its lacks and disappointments, ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is a nice little salute to a man, who managed to beat the whole of the royal household in their own game, and a slightly moody old lady, who for all her aura of seriousness and awe, clearly demonstrated that she does not give a damn about what you thought.


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Written by:

Asya Gadzheva
Digital Portfolio
Freelance Contributor

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