Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul” is an otherwise benignly toothless, pleasantly glossy affair, but it does force us to confront one tricky question: When treating a subject as fraught as British imperial rule, when does a film’s benign inoffensiveness become offensive in and of itself? Still, that’s about the only food for thought in what is at once a breezy, lion-in-winter vehicle for Judi Dench in queen-mode and a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Noble” bit of wealth porn, and not much more.
Dench is back as Queen Victoria, returning to a role she had previously played in John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown,” a film that must have not only inspired Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall, but acted as their foundational text. Little is known about the very real relationship that existed between the aging monarch and her advisor Abdul Karim, and so Hall has essentially grafted their story onto a broad strokes retelling of Madden’s 1997 film. In both versions, an underling servant grants the withdrawn Widow of Windsor a new lease on life, much to evident displeasure of her numerous attendants, political appointees, and children. Swap out the Scot John Brown for the Indian Muslim Abdul, fast forward a few decades and here we go.
The film picks up on the unhappy queen as a prisoner of her own court. Trapped in an endless cycle of luncheons, ceremonies, and royal visits, Old Vic seeks solace in food. Every day brings another ornate banquet, and every banquet brings countless lavish courses. The rich preparations are about the only thing worth paying attention to, at least until she locks eyes with Abdul (Bollywood star Ali Fazal, though recently of “Furious 7”).
A lowly prison clerk sent from his native Agra to present the queen a coin, Abdul brazenly breaks protocol by staring the Empress of India in the eyes. And yet it seems to work out. She warms to his moxie, speaks of his good looks, and takes him on as her right-hand man, at least until the protocol-rigid chamberlains complain about a commoner spending so much time with the ostensible most powerful woman on Earth. So she makes him a royal advisor, there to teach her all about the entire subcontinent where she has long ruled if never actually stepped a foot, and life is sweet again.
That sweetness is laced into the very character of the film, which wants to be taken as a light confection. We breeze through all the royal real estate, marveling at the opulent décor. We titter at Dench’s withering put downs and saucy asides, grateful to see a venerable performer doing what she does best. And we snicker at those upper class power dynamics, familiar to all thanks to the seemingly endless deluge of aristocrat-dramas that have proliferated since “Downton Abbey” and are all over our aunts’ Netflix feeds.
When one obsequious doctor tries to cure the queen’s constipation, he uses the incredible formation “perhaps the royal colon could stand a bit more roughage.” We smirk. That’s the kind of movie “Victoria & Abdul” wants to be.
Except, it can’t be, thanks to that damned question of colonialism, the legacy of which is still being felt today. In the film’s formation, both Abdul and Victoria are innocent actors, two parties on the far extremes of a troubling system run by callous white men (represented here by the likes of Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, and Tim Pigott-Smith). But that structure never stands up because the film never grants the slightest interest in Abdul’s perspective.
While Dench gets a number of speeches and confrontations, dramatizing Victoria’s position as both all-powerful and basically powerless, Fazal is just asked to smile. Abdul is good-natured and charming, happily there to serve. He’s eager to teach her Urdu, or recite from the Koran, much to Victoria’s delight and her advisor’s dismay, but what’s going on inside his mind? What’s it like to go from the basement of colonial prison to a seat of Imperial power? Well, aside from the fact that he seems to appreciate the wallpaper, we never really know. The film is called “Victoria & Abdul” but it only ever lives up to one half of its title.
You can’t really make a pro-colonialist film in today’s political landscape (and thank god for that!), but by refusing to confront the real historical factors that make an essential part of the plot, “Victoria & Abdul” comes awfully close.
Though painted in a sympathetic light, Abdul is only ever used as tool both in the film’s plot and construction. By lavishing him with praise and attention, the queen is able to needle her scheming, racist coterie. By showing how earnestly devoted he is without stopping to ask why or what that would mean, the filmmakers essentially treat him as a prop in a white woman’s road to awakening. Despite a number of frilly charms, the film uses a figure of an oppressed class as a pawn in the larger games of the oppressors, and never stops to consider who he is as a person. There’s a name for that.
“Victoria & Abdul” premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It will hit theaters on September 22.