Victoria & Abdul Movie Review: It Is Bolstered By Judi & Ali’s Superlative Performances!

Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal,

Directed by Stephen Frears

Rating: *** ½(3 and a half stars)

 There has been a lot of flak aimed at this enchanting film  for  it subversive look at colonial relationships.

For  all those who refuse to take history’s lessons lightly, here is some  unsolicited advice: get a laugh.

And  I do  mean, laugh. For, in spite of one very moving tearful moment,sunshine and smiles are the  dominant forces in  Stephen Frears’ look at the very strange yet extremely noble and dignified  bonding between Queen Victoria and her young clerical Indian friend Karim who is sent to assuage her royal ego but is soon her closest confidante and  only friend in a royal household teeming with opportunists and gold diggers.

This  is  not to say that Victoria & Abdul trivializes  history  or, as suggested by some revisionist  reviewers , that it turns  the relation between the conqueror and  the conquered  into  a soppy soap opera.

There is  nothing soppy or sloppy  about the friendship that grows between the Queen and her royal if somewhatselfserving servant, divided by cultures and continents  the two come together for a platonic  friendship that defies all protocol and even basic logic. I  mean, as one  of the bitchy royal householders mutters  under his breath, ‘What does she SEE in him?!”

A  lot, apparently. As played by  the affable Ali Fazal,Abdul  Karim is persuasively charming , cocky and irreverent yet attentive respectful and compassionate…. Just what the Queen needed in her twilight years.And let us be honest, Abdul is not above being a manipulative opportunist. But then as the shrewd Queen retorts, who  is not an opportunist in  the royal household?

Director Stephen Frears,  no stranger to cross-cultural romantic conflicts( who can forget the tumultuous  passion  between the Pakistani  Omar and  the  British Johnny in Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette?)  here unravels with carpet-like imagery,  the burgeoning fondness of the Queen for the tall handsome  Oriental subject with a mixture of amusement and wonderment.

Looked at as a telescopic transcription  of  colonial hearsay, Victoria & Abdul renders itself handsomely and  elegantly to the theme of ambivalent passion. Make  no  mistake. This is a world  of  unspoken but unmistakable passion.The Queen may whitewash her feelings with as much decorum  as she likes. But there  is  most certainly a dark unexpressed and inexpressible frisson between  she and her unlikely brown  Muslim friend whom everyone  at the Buckingham Palace refers to as ‘The Hindoo’.

Judi Dench drenches the Queen’s Victorian propriety  and dignity  in the colours of irreverence and iconoclasm.Queen Victoria as played by  Ms Dench, eats sumptuously(we see her at the meal table quite a number of times), drinks, burps and probably farts too. And she is  not averse to snoring during ceremonial meals with aristocrats and  other stuffed shirts(and stockings).

This is a  fun queen, living her last years on her own terms.And  Ali Fazal’s Abdul Karim provides the Queen with that impetus to be naughty and wild. Their relationship is impetuous and  bridled by the Frowning Glory of  the royal household. The disapproving brigade  of British peers is  played by a fine team of English actors all of whom appear ridiculous  only from  the outside. I specially liked Eddie Izzard’s Bertie, the Queen’s neglected and petulant son, who cannot stand  the sight of her embarrassing  new Indian friend.

“A  brown Mr  Brown,” as someone describes Karim with a colourfully colloquial  cluck of  the tongue, referring to Victoria’s earlier scandalous liaison with a certain Mr Brown that we’ve seen in another (superior)film. The Queen’s association with Karim in this film is far less scandalous because there is  no sex between them. Though I am  sure she would  have liked it to be.

Watching Judi and Ali sink their collaborative teeth into Victoria & Abdul provides us with a delightful if somewhat  iconoclastic insight  into what the colonial relations would have been  like if they had not been encumbered by protocol. There are moments of great tenderness and  understanding between Ms Dench and Mr Fazal, almost echoing the tender but troubled  relations between Adela Quested and Dr Aziz in  E M Foster’s A Passage To India.

Imagine what life for Karim Abdul would have been  like had the Queen  turned around and accused him of unbecoming  conduct! This is as hypothetical  as  wondering what life in India would have been  like if the British had stayed away. Or what the British royalty would have been  if the Queen was really as fey feisty and irreverent as JudiDench makes her out to be in this delightfully subversive view of  royalty.

Victoria & Abdul has a beautiful heart and  body. It feels and looks fetching. It is  a work born out of sincere feelings and therefore worthy of  the respect that it so flippantly solicits.

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