Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA & ABDUL tells the little-known story of Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal), a Muslim clerk from India. He is chosen alongside a man named Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to deliver a commemorative coin to the Queen (played, as in 1997’s MRS BROWN, by Dame Judi Dench). Whilst there, he is under instruction to avoid eye contact with her majesty, but he can’t resist. Luckily, Victoria takes a liking to him, and before too long he is employed under her service, teaching her to speak and write Urdu, and forming an unorthodox friendship.
A very early trailer for this film sold it as a quirky, offbeat comedy, whereas the official trailers and posters now sell it as a prestigious, biographical drama. It’s perhaps predictable that the end product falls between the two. The first half of the film leans more towards comedy: the dialogue is full of quick, witty and occasionally farcical one-liners, including an early running gag about an elephant. Adeel Akhtar gets most of the funniest lines as the put-upon, reluctant companion to our hero, but the comedic focus is on the royal staff. They are incredibly invasive of Victoria’s privacy, and a lot of amusing visual gags are found in ever-growing crowds of people who listen at the door to Victoria and Abdul’s conversations.
… the intended emotional weight feels slightly unearned …
But the drama bubbles up in this first act whenever the lead characters share a scene. Dench is great as the Queen, balancing curmudgeonly humour with a softer, more vulnerable side. Fazal delivers an endearingly innocent performance as Abdul, and the pair share a strong chemistry. As the second half of the film gets more dramatically meaty, you might expect the duo’s rapport to be used to its full potential. Quite the opposite, actually. The antics of the staff, however funny they were initially, start to overshadow the film’s central relationship. Akhtar only goes from strength to strength, with his role taking a surprisingly moving turn. Other than that, the film starts to drag. By the time the central pair finally have more dialogue together, the intended emotional weight feels slightly unearned.
The film is also perhaps overly forgiving of the part Victoria played in the British colonisation of India. She is portrayed as ignorant of British activities in the country, and as the most racially sensitive character in the whole cast. This is obviously problematic, but having said that, it is to be expected. It’s a British feel-good film with patriotic overtones. There isn’t a total lack of nuance here, but don’t expect much. That being said, VICTORIA & ABDUL is still a likeable film overall. It is flawed, either by an uncomfortable undertone of historical revisionism, or just by an unbalanced use of the various narrative elements. But it is also relaxingly pleasant, amusing and well-acted. It won’t leave an impact, but it will pass the time pretty well.