Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
To be taken with several grains of salt, I'm sure. Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul is an enjoyable movie, even though it feels like the sort of movie you're not supposed to be able to enjoy anymore. I suppose that what saves it is that it seems to know that it's that kind of movie and takes steps, however imperfectly, to try to address head-on the elements that might be used to designate it as "problematic" generally and as an undiscerning colonialist fantasy specifically. As I said, take it all with a grain of salt, but as lightweight period pieces - where the emphasis is as much on the lavish costumes and production design as on the marquee performance - go, Victoria & Abdul is pleasantly entertaining.
Although the film, written by Lee Hall, doesn't do a great job at establishing the story's passage of time (one would be forgiven for assuming that it takes place over only a handful of years as the characters display no physical change from beginning to end) Victoria & Abdul spans the better part of 14 years from Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 to her death in 1901. Queen Victoria is played by Judi Dench, revisiting the role that made her one of filmdom's most unlikely stars 20 years ago, who depicts the monarch as being pretty much "over it," bored by the pomp, the ceremony, and the formalities and protocol that leave her feeling isolated and depressed. This changes when she's presented with a Jubilee gift from British India via two (kind of randomly chosen) emissaries, Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the former so nervous that he does what no one else dares to do by looking the Queen in the eye and then holding her gaze.
The genesis of the friendship that develops is in this moment, where this failure of protocol collapses the boundary between ruler and subject, and soon the two are seemingly inseparable as the Queen insists on having Abdul by her side at virtually every occasion. From here the film becomes about two things: a meeting of the minds between the two main characters which crosses lines of class, race, and gender; and the attempts of members of the Queen's household to undermine the friendship and remove Abdul from the picture. In this respect the film is overtly sympathetic to Abdul and Queen Victoria, depicting the former as a figure of pure serenity who is devoted to the Queen and his position as her Munshi and the latter as grateful to have someone to actually talk to and affectionate and open-minded, while the rest of the household - which includes the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her doctor, Sir James Reid (Paul Higgins), and her eldest son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard) - is depicted as racist, cruel, grasping, and hysterical. There's never any doubt who the audience is supposed to identify with and who we're supposed to view as villains - and yet it would not be incorrect to say that the film has a muddled view regarding race and colonialism.
Victoria & Abdul takes a few swipes at colonialism - in addition to its depiction of the Queen's household, there's also a scene in which Abdul and Mohammed are presented with the "traditional" garb they'll wear to make their presentation to the Queen and when they mention that there are flourishes on the uniforms that have no connection to Indian traditions, they're informed by the designers that those flourishes make the uniforms look more "authentic," and the film uses Mohammed as a means of criticizing the British and their culture as he uses pretty much every scene he appears in to make it clear that he thinks Britain is a hellhole that he can't wait to escape from - it does so in a winking way that undercuts the effect of the criticism. The "dressing scene" is played for laughs, acknowledging the appropriation and twisting of another's culture, but the joke is basically that these British men absolutely can remake part of someone else's culture to their own specifications because they have all the power; while Mohammed is the film's comic relief and his comments about the "barbarism" of the British and their customs are funny because they're the sort of things that ignorant white people would say about his culture, but also because he's annoyed by perfectly ordinary, every day things so that the joke is essentially, "Ha ha, he's mad because England is cold and the people eat things that are different from what he would eat at home." The effect is that even though it commits to being critical of the system and people around Queen Victoria, the film also can't seem to help having an affection for the idea of the Victorian era and the Raj that makes it play in an apologist rather than a condemnatory way.
This affection extends to the era's namesake, whom the film goes out of its way to absolve of any responsibility for any of the atrocities committed in the name of her empire. Though there's no criticism to be had with Dench's acting (is there ever?), the film opts to depict Queen Victoria as weirdly naive about certain things, including being aware that she can't visit India because she might be assassinated but for some reason being surprised to learn of the role of Muslim soldiers in rebelling against British rule and that there's a fatwa against her, which works to place her at a distance from the effects of colonialism even as she directly benefits from them. The film's depiction of Abdul works in the Queen's favor as well through a motif where she keeps learning that he's either withheld information from her or fibbed about things to curry her favor, allowing her to always be the wronged party in their dynamic. As a result the film's conception of Abdul is a bit murky because it's working at once to portray this friendship as something genuine and pure, but also suggesting (and then timidly backing away from the suggestion) that Abdul is engaging in a bit of manipulation for his own gain, playing the same game that all of the courtiers are playing but doing it much better. The film never quite gets a handle on Abdul as a character because it can't find a way to allow him complexity without portraying him in a way that plays into the accusations being made by the film's villains.
All of that being said, I actually did enjoy Victoria & Abdul quite a bit. Dench is wonderful, making the most of the "big moments" that the screenplay affords her as well as the smaller, quieter moments that provide insight into why Queen Victoria would gravitate towards someone with whom she has seemingly so little in common, and the film does feature exactly the kind of splendid outfitting of its characters and setting that one expects from the genre. I suppose that makes this something of a guilty pleasure, a film with flaws that are right there on the surface and unavoidable, but which tells its story well enough to keep you engaged and even, at times, moved. It's the sort of film that goes down pretty easily, even if you walk away aware that you've been given a sanitized version of the story.