Victoria & Abdul, a lavish period piece, dramatizes another of her relationships. It is based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confident by Shrabani Basu. The book forms the basis for the film and the film is based mostly on real events. Baroness Churchill, lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, played by the fabulous Olivia Williams in the film, sums it up aptly when she calls Abdul Karim, the dark John Brown.
The film is a lavish period piece dripping with pomp and circumstance, intrigue and suspense set at the height of Victoria’s rule, but it is a comedy drama too. Dame Dench gives another Oscar worthy performance as the enduring British sovereign, bereaved widow, mother of nine children, and grandmother of 42 grand-children. Her performance is nuanced, complex and multi-faceted rendering a sympathetic Victoria, and Dench is marvellous to watch. The film dramatizes her relationship with her Indian servant Abdul Karim who quickly becomes her favourite, confident and teacher. The insulting, spiteful and underhanded treatment Abdul experiences and endures at the hands of palace courtiers, politicians and members of the royal family weaves itself throughout the narrative serving as the dramatic tension that carries the film. Victoria is not immune to the backlash either. Although the court considers his presence an affront and breach of protocol, their effrontery fails to convince Victoria to cut her ties with her Munshi. Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim is marvellous too in his role. His charisma, handsomeness and masculinity light up the screen. Mohammed played by Adeel Akhtar provides comic relief and a second sober thought on the events as they unfold. Simon Callow as Mr. Puccini is a hoot.
You’ll like Victoria & Abdul not only for the brilliant acting but for the cinematography and the lavish period sets and costumes. The beauty and light of the Tuscan landscape, the Scottish landscape, and the Taj Mahal are beautifully photographed and bring a complexity and richness to the film. Beware that the film contains blatant racism, and some may find the scene when Abdul kisses Victoria’s feet objectionable but it provides a context to understanding their relationship. The touching of feet of one’s elders or social superiors is an ancient Indian tradition demonstrating respect and submission and a way of seeking blessings from one’s elder, teacher and/or superior. And Abdul did receive her blessings in spades. He became an important person in her life and she treated him as such bestowing on him her confidence, affection, wealth and privilege much to the chagrin of the court, her household, and members of her family.
I love period pieces for they allow me to escape into a world beyond my social and cultural experiences, and Victoria & Abdul did that for me. Dench’s performance stretched my imagination to reconsider Queen Victoria in a new light. Obviously, theirs was an unequal relationship. She was Empress of India and he was her subject. She was his master and he was her servant. Yet, their relationship transcended boundaries of class, status, age, gender and race. Victoria and Abdul is a gem of a film, well-written, well-acted and gorgeously shot. Do see it!
Universal Pictures releases Victoria & Abdul exclusive to Varsity on Friday, Sept 29 and opens everywhere else on Friday, October 6, 2017