Set in the tail end of the nineteenth century when Britain ruled India, Victoria And Abdul tells the true story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria of England and Abdul Karim, an Indian servant who would eventually become her close confidant and munshi, or teacher.
The movie’s opening chapter shows how Abdul was plucked from India to serve at a royal occasion in England, where he would present Queen Victoria with a ceremonial coin. Then it proceeds from there to show how the Queen would take notice of Abdul—first for his good looks, then for his candor and wisdom. The latter half of the movie then explores how this friendship would tear the royal household apart: No one else trusts Abdul, whose close relationship with the Queen is met with resentment and called into question for conspiracy.
These are the movie’s main plot components: the blossoming of their unlikely friendship, and the resulting racial and political tensions within the household. Victoria And Abdul exhausts almost all of its 112-minute runtime weaving its narrative in and out of these two components, often dwelling somewhat sluggishly in the minutiae of each of them.
But for its pace and its narrow focus, the film does manage some levity and spectacle. There’s a lot of light if aristocratic humor peppered throughout, from the main characters’ own sort of meet-cute to the repeated bewilderment of the other members of the royal staff at how close they become. Victoria And Abdul is characterized by this sort of lightness, such that despite its heavier moments and its ending, you still leave the theater as if you’ve watched a feel-good film.
Then there’s its beautiful depiction of the royal lifestyle in the Victorian era: costumes, palace interiors, a picnic in the Scottish highlands—all spectacular, believable, and well-designed scenes. The visuals certainly do a lot to make Victoria And Abdul a pleasant film to watch. (Anyone who has taste for Victorian furniture will experience some serious interior envy watching this.)
But despite these, the best thing about the film is still its star, Dame Judi Dench, who renders an expectedly brilliant portrayal of Queen Victoria (who she’s played before, for a separate film entitled Mrs. Brown). Dame Dench gives the character a lovable caprice, and manages in the subtleties of her expressions to make you believe the deep and vaguely maternal love that Victoria had for Abdul. The entire film is anchored on that relationship and how it gave the Queen life in her later years—and it’s Dench’s performance that does most to give it the weight it needs.
There is, however, an issue with the ultimate message of Victoria And Abdul: It’s certainly an endearing and enjoyable film, but it doesn’t quite settle on a stance about the issues that revolve around its story. While in the beginning, Abdul is built up as a wise and sensitive Indian man who, by teaching the Queen of England about Islam and Indian culture, could disprove the racist (racialist?) beliefs that were prevalent at the time—he never gets to fully fulfill that role, and instead recedes into the role of a loyal servant who also just happens to be a friend. So much more could have been done to develop Abdul as a character, who could have been a more potent and relevant statement about the errors of racism. Instead, the second half of the film focuses on the tensions between the Queen and her household.
To its credit, the film does paint Queen Victoria as a compassionate and progressive opponent of racism. But that’s been criticized as a problematic portrait of her and a revisionist whitewashing of India’s British colonial past, making it an empty statement. Ultimately, it feels like the film tries to send a positive, anti-racist message, but falls just a little short of it by focusing on Victoria and her family instead of Abdul.
Does that make it a bad film? Certainly not—it’s still worth seeing, especially if you're a history buff or are particularly invested in the royals. For its flaws, Victoria And Abdul still a charming period drama with a very interesting story to tell. You’d like it to be a little more than that, because it handles such a relevant issue and is in fact a very unique story, but that’s all you get, and really, it’s enough.
Victoria And Abdul opens Wednesday, October 4 at seven Ayala Malls cinemas: Alabang Town Center, Bonifacio High Street, Greenbelt 3, The 30th, Trinoma, UP Town Center, and Ayala Center Cebu.