Victoria and Abdul
Dzjenana Vucic | 6/09/2017
There’s something not quite right about Stephen Frear’s latest British costume drama. It isn’t the meticulous and opulent costuming by Oscar-nominated designed Consolata Boyle. It isn’t Thomas Newman’s score which is at once intimate and conventional enough to go almost unnoticed throughout. It isn’t Judi Dench who returns to the role of Queen Victoria just as shrewd, affecting and lonesome as she was in Mrs Brown (1997). It isn’t even Ali Fazal, who plays Abdul Karim with doe-eyes and much fawning.
If the problem could be blamed on anything in particular, it would have to be the script by Lee Hall, based on a book by Shrabani Basu, which in turn was inspired by Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private journals, discovered in 2010. Having read none of these precursor documents, it’s difficult to know if the fault is entirely Hall’s, but then again, his script certainly reinforces a myopic and old-fashioned view of British colonisation and displays a disturbing nostalgia for the Raj.
The story follows the chaste romance and (mostly) true friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. a young Indian Muslim plucked from his role as a clerk in Agra to present a Mohur (a commemorative coin) at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Before they meet, Queen Victoria is old, shrunken and cantankerous, falling asleep at dinner and frowning at just about everything. But she immediately perks up at the sight of the “handsome” Abdul who, in a stomach-churning gesture, promptly drops to the floor and kisses her feet. This grovelling is an intensely uncomfortable experience for the viewer, and one which we are forced to sit through twice, no less.
Enraptured by Abdul’s good looks and good grovelling, the flattered old monarch takes him somewhat under her wing. And of course she does, because she’s lonely and oppressed by royal routine, surrounded by plotting lickspittles and otherwise plain old bored. Abdul becomes her cherished manservant, begins teaching her Urdu and soon enough becomes her munshi (a Persian word, originally meaning writer or secretary, and later used in British India for native language teachers or secretaries employed by Europeans).
From the start, it is unclear why Queen Victoria is so interested in Abdul and the film’s dubious casting of the monarch as somehow progressive, railing against the white racist courtiers surrounding her, leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Her promotion of Abdul to a member of the household is positioned as a hard-won triumph of diversity while racists and colonialist attitudes of the time are offloaded to the courtiers surrounding the queen; she herself is presented as a paragon of acceptance and open-mindedness. This strange re-casting of history isn’t even challenged in a scene where Queen Victoria’s colonialist arrogance is put on display when she admits to ignorance of the fact that the British have stolen Indian goods, including the Koh-i-Noor jewel which she wears as a brooch, and destroyed much of India’s history, like the Peacock Throne which the Queen blithely orders a copy of.
Victoria and Abdul is a toothless look at Raj Britain, lacking entirely in moral complexity and self-awareness. It is an example of lazy white film making with a few nods to British racism, colonialism and ignorance but so shallow and fleeting that they feel almost obligatory. It’s a film uncomfortably comfortable with colonisation and one that could only be enjoyed by people who are too – your benignly racist grandma who still collects golliwogs, for example.
This refusal to investigate the racist attitudes inherit in a woman who finds novelty and entertainment in an Indian servant is compounded by the fact that Abdul is unconvincing, at best, and at worst, he is a mere plot device, whose soul purpose is to prop up the white woman’s story. He is dutiful, servile, devoted and full of Eastern wisdom and stories from the Raj. His political views end at feeling honoured to serve the Queen, despite what she represents to the freedom of his people.
The only challenge to colonialism sentiment comes from Abdul’s friend Mohammed (Adeel Ahktar) who is cantankerous and sneering of the British ‘oppressor’ and their ‘barbaric’ practice of eating animal bi-products. The royal household sneers at Abdul and refers to him as ‘lower’ order and the audience gets to silently tut them, but this is hardly the critique of the British Empire that a storyline like this warrants.
Further, while the film is ostensibly about both Victoria and Abdul, Abdul remains a blank slate. Occasionally there are hints of his ambitions to power but the film moves too quickly to either shoot these down or to elaborate upon them in any way. His failure to disclose his marital status his religion, his class, his background, and even the historical truth cause minor ripples in his relationship with the Queen and we watch her deal with them without ever understanding why Abdul lied in the first place. His motives are entirely irrelevant to the film and the fact that he never seems to want his country, or indeed himself and his family, to be free of the British yoke is never explored beyond a disturbing revelation that he lives to serve.