The 400-Word Review: Victoria and Abdul
By Sean Collier
October 10, 2017
On its surface, Victoria and Abdul is a pleasant tale of 19th-century mores and manners — the sort of thing one might take older relatives to after a Sunday brunch. Judi Dench is excellent, and will almost certainly earn an Oscar nomination (these sorts of roles typically do). Ali Fazal keeps up with his veteran co-star. There are moments of genuine humor and passable sentiment; it is a wholly logical follow-up to director Stephen Frears’ fine 2016 film, Florence Foster Jenkins.
Yet there is a more complicated story below the surface — and the film is practically begging you not to consider that angle on the tale.
Victoria and Abdul is a partial biography of Abdul Karim, an Indian man who became a close confidant and friend to Queen Victoria during the later years of her life. That the two struck up an almost familial relationship is known to history; that this closeness riled those around the monarch, due to both regal propriety and pure racism, is a matter of record as well. (A postscript to the film notes that the script was inspired by journals kept by Karim, and the opening title card is equivocal about how closely the movie follows true events.)
We are to observe, I believe, a heartwarming story of an unlikely friendship — and a nice message about how Queen Victoria was able to rise above certain prejudices — and be on our way, reveling in the performances (they are quite good) and feeling generally pleasant.
On the other hand ... wait, really?
This is a film about how a distant monarch, at the height of England’s imperialism, developed a fetish for a cartoonish representation of Indian culture — a fascination set on because a servant was notably handsome, we are told. When we meet the Queen, she is bored and barely paying attention to the proceedings around her; she is enlivened by the presence of Karim (a human being) the way one is perked up by a particularly fascinating new hobby.
And, again, this is as England was subjugating the people of India.
What a truly curious bit of history to seize upon for a heartwarming tale. True, there is something remarkable about this relationship, and there’s nothing — other than some pap — wrong with the film per se. Yet those who think critically about Victoria and Abdul are in for a rocky road.
My Rating: 7/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark