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A true tale of an unlikely friendship, ‘Victoria and Abdul’ is terribly told

  • In this image released by Focus Features, Judi Dench, from left, Ali Fazal and Tim Pigott-Smith appear in a scene from "Victoria and Abdul." (Peter Mountain/Focus Features via AP) Peter Mountain

  • In this image released by Focus Features, Judi Dench appears in a scene from "Victoria and Abdul." (Peter Mountain/Focus Features via AP) Peter Mountain

  • Judi Dench (left) and Ali Fazal appear in “Victoria and Abdul.” AP



Washington Post
Friday, October 06, 2017

‘Victoria and Abdul begins with a disclaimer. The drama about Queen Victoria’s friendship with one of her servants – an Indian clerk named Abdul Karim, whose close relationship with his boss scandalized the Victorian court – is “based on true events ... mostly,” according to an on-screen title.

It’s not entirely clear, however, exactly which part of the story is loosey-goosey. Directed by Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) from a script adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) from historian Shrabani Basu’s nonfiction book, Victoria and Abdul isn’t wildly improbable. After all, the queen seems to have made something of a habit of cultivating friendships with members of her staff, as evidenced by her relationship with her personal assistant John Brown, memorialized in the movie Mrs. Brown. (As in that 1997 film, Judi Dench again plays Victoria.)

The little wink-wink of that on-screen warning may simply be a way to alert viewers not to the fact that the story isn’t told straight, but to the fact that it isn’t told with a straight face. Frears and Hall can’t seem to resist turning the scandalized reaction of the aristocratic bluenoses to Victoria’s relationship with her Muslim manservant – chiefly embodied by Eddie Izzard in the role of Victoria’s priggish son Bertie – into something of a circus.

Victoria and Abdul might have aimed for poignancy – and at times it almost strikes that tone – but for the most part, it plays like broadly clownish comedy, treating crusty British prejudice with all the subtlety of The Benny Hill Show.

Dench again delivers a wonderfully nuanced and complex performance as Victoria, even if the Bollywood star Ali Fazal, as Abdul, isn’t quite her equal in the acting department. But the real disappointments are in the supporting cast of characters, who try to undermine the bond between the two protagonists. These include Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins and Olivia Williams, as members of Victoria’s aghast retinue, who mug and gape in shameless caricatures of bigotry as Abdul and Victoria grow closer.

A little of that goes a long way. But Frears and Lee lay it on thick, with one character shouting – just in case his facial expression isn’t enough – “This is bloody ridiculous!” in the face of Abdul’s growing prominence in the court. When the prime minister (Michael Gambon) issues a threat – whether of deportation or something else, it’s not made explicit – his words are followed by a thunderclap, like something out of Young Frankenstein.

As for Abdul, he is the placid, anachronistic face of the film’s kumbaya spirit, expressed in a speech that compares life to a carpet. Global harmony between the races, Abdul suggests, brings “all the threads together and weave(s) something we can all stand on.”

Not that there is anything wrong with that sentiment. The tale of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, which was not made known to the world until Basu’s 2010 book, is one that’s good and true and worth telling. But the way that Victoria and Abdul slops it around is – mostly – hogwash.