Victoria & Abdul
"The film harbors no curiosity whatsoever of the man behind the brown skin and turban."
Title: Victoria & Abdul (2017)
Director: Stephen Frears 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Original book by Shrabani Basu 👩🏽🇮🇳 and screenplay by Lee Hall 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Victoria & Abdul is a pleasant time that will last one hour and fifty-two minutes before evaporating from your mind like steam from a cuppa. While the pacing can be uneven and the movie is unabashed about its spin doctoring of an imperialist past, buried within this pulpy, overripe mango is a core that doesn’t go off—the true story of a deep friendship between unlikely individuals.
Dame Judi Dench is the crown jewel of this film, and luckily, filmmakers Stephen Frears and Lee Hall know it. Unlike her recent appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, which was a withering waste of Dench’s immense skill set, Frears leaves his movie in her capable hands. Dench, in her role as Queen Victoria, garners the majority of scenes and the full emotional breadth of the film.
Beyond the queen, however, complex women are absent. Left over is a smattering of flat individuals, both male and female. None of the story arc is especially feminist and Queen Victoria is seldom seen interacting with other women. Even when they do share lines, it is usually to discuss the eyebrow-raising presence of Abdul (Ali Fazal).
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 20% of creative decision-makers were POC
Victoria & Abdul is set during the height of the British Empire and the film has no idea how to deal with its colonial past, at times lambasting racism through the villainization of Queen Victoria’s entourage who work together to oust dear, sweet Abdul, while simultaneously looking upon the era with sentimentalism. The final frame of the film features a statue of Queen Victoria in the foreground, camera lens angled majestically up, while the Taj Mahal can be seen far behind it. The filmmakers probably mean for it to be a heartwarming allusion to the queen’s unfulfilled wish to see India in person, but ultimately, the shot is simply tone deaf as it warmly depicts a monarch in front of her oppressed colony.
As for Abdul’s portrayal, any film review will tell you that the character is offensively sycophantic. Why does he love Queen Victoria so much, literally kissing her feet when he is graced with her presence? What are his motivations, his backstory, his dreams? Victoria & Abdul harbors no curiosity whatsoever of the man behind the brown skin and turban. And while the film delivers softball chuckles by weaving retro racism throughout the dialogue—in one scene, old white men fuss over Abdul’s exoticized costume, which Abdul points out is inaccurate only to be rebuked that their version feels “more authentic”—the ultimate irony is that Abdul’s characterization itself is treated with the same casual condescension by, well, its old white male filmmakers.
In short, Victoria & Abdul is a mess on racial representation. I’m only giving an extra point for the fact that actor Ali Fazal does appear in a sizable chunk of the film, second only to Judi Dench. I enjoyed the introduction Fazal’s work and I can only hope this gig offers more opportunities to him in the future. He wasn’t given a lot to work with here and it left me hungry to see him tackle more complex roles.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
As mentioned above, Judi Dench, age 83, is given nearly the majority of a feature-length film to fill. She does it with characteristic excellence, portraying an older character with the utmost complexity.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.25/5
While Victoria & Abdul does tell the story of an inspiring friendship, it comes wrapped in an odious package of colonialist sentimentality.
Overall, though, it’s innocuous enough to boot up and enjoy on a quiet evening, or to save for a family-friendly night. But if you’ve got kids in the room, be ready to discuss why this British film is problematic in its revisionist history. Frears posits Queen Victoria as a progressive, anti-racist but it simply isn’t true. Viewers should know this going into the film.