Biography Drama

'Victoria & Abdul' Film Review: A lavish period piece that avoids the hard issues

September 29, 2017Ferdosa Abdi

Much like Amma Asante’s 2013 film, Belle, Victoria & Abdul would not exist were it not for a painting and a scant few surviving records of Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim, whose real-life friendship with Britain's Queen Victoria is the subject of director Stephen Frears' latest period piece.

Like the heroine of Belle, a mixed-race black woman from a noble British family named Dido Elizabeth Belle, Abdul was a person of color who found himself in an uncommon circumstance within British high society. Both he and Belle were immortalized in beautiful and elegant portraits — something rarely done for people of color — and both their stories were largely forgotten and erased from history. But whereas Belle succeeded at making its title character central to the story being told, Abdul is very much a supporting character in his own story.

Abdul, played here by Ali Fazal, is the heart of the film. He is a bumbling, humble and naive man who just happens to have an honest and real connection with one of the most powerful women in history, Queen Victoria, played by the ever-brilliant Dame Judi Dench. Not many people can match Dench’s screen presence, but Fazal pulls it off, and the audience is left with a genuinely beautifully pairing. Their first meeting amounts to a series of hilarious shenanigans that ends with the shy Abdul abruptly kissing Victoria’s feet. He gets up and does the one thing he is told not to do — make eye contact with the Queen — and from there a friendship is born.

The movie’s biggest flaw, though, is the lack of perspective given to Abdul, whose relationship with Victoria was not met with kindness. Although the film is open about the bigotry and hatred their friendship attracted, Abdul is never given any significant screen time to react. He is not portrayed as a person with feelings or thoughts. He is simply a loyal servant to his Queen. In Belle, there are many scenes of Dido contemplating her position as the daughter of a black slave and a British nobleman. Abdul, on the other hand, is never afforded a similar opportunity to grapple with his situation, his relationship with Her Majesty, or his responsibilities to his family, people and country.

Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall also play it safe by depicting the pair's dynamic through romantic comedy tropes, and by treating serious and troubling behavior as comedic quirks. Victoria’s lack of awareness concerning what had been going on in India during that time is brushed off; the Palace household's many attempts to sabotage Abdul are played for laughs; and Bertie, Victoria's son, is presented as mustache-twirling villain. Suffice to say, viewers who are more knowledgeable about topics such as colonization and bigotry will not enjoy this movie, because, quite frankly, the filmmakers don't seem to think these topics warrant addressing onscreen.

Turning this story into a comedy-drama that ultimately proves to be a shallow fictionalization of an important and complex relationship was a mistake, and depriving the character of Abdul of any real depth is distasteful. That said, Fazal’s endearing performance does make the whole thing worthwhile. He comes across as extremely charismatic and passionate, and his smile is genuinely infectious. His depiction of Abdul’s undying devotion and love for Victoria is sincere and moving, and Fazal is able to convey so much with simply a look or a gesture. It's just unfortunate that the overall film was not treated with the same degree of care and attention.

Victoria & Abdul releases September 29th, 2017 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Its runtime is 1 hr. 52 min.

You May Also Like