Victoria and Abdul a Bad Second Act


VICTORIA and ABDUL  (2017)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Focus Pictures, 111minutes, PG-13

Someone should make a film about how Queen Victoria was more than a puritanical prude during her 63-plus years on the British throne (1837-1901). Oh wait, somebody already did that twenty years ago. Is it time to do it again? Nope!

Victoria (1819-1901) was just 18 when she was crowned and had not reached 22 when she married her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Colburg, in 1840. Theirs was a loving and fruitful marriage that produced nine children before Albert died suddenly in 1861, shortly after traveling to Italy to admonish their eldest child, Edward (“Bertie”), who was engaged in a scandalous dalliance with an actress. The queen never forgave Bertie and spent the remaining 61 years of her life in resentment and mourning. In fact, she came to thoroughly dislike all of her children, whom she saw—with considerable merit­—as pampered, conniving, and amoral. History labels the latter half of the 19th century the “Victorian Age,” and associates it with dour temperaments, moral rectitude, social scripting, and affected seriousness.

Not surprisingly, Victoria’s private life wasn’t entirely up to code. She had confidants and particularly enjoyed spending time in royal residences outside of Greater London, especially Scotland. After Albert’s death she found comfort in John Brown, her Scottish footman, who served her from 1863 until his death in 1883. There were even rumors that the two were lovers, but these seem to have been circulated by her family and courtiers jealous that Victoria paid them little heed. Those who’ve seen director John Madden’s acclaimed 1997 film Mrs. Brown with Billy Connolly as Brown and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria know this story.

In 1876, Victoria also became Empress of India, courtesy of British imperialism. In Victoria and Abdul, Dench reprises her role as Victoria. Stephen Frears’ film is basically a sequel to Mrs. Brown—just not a very good one. It opens in 1887, when two Indian Muslims travel to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin commemorating her 50th year on the throne. By then Victoria had grown zaftig, tired, bored with the throne, and disgusted with the hangers on at court. Small wonder she found Abdul (Ali Fazal) exotic in all the right ways; he was tall, kind, polished, and in awe of Her Majesty. We see the two grow together as friends, with Victoria appointing him her “Munshi” (teacher) for lessons in Urdu and the Qur’an. She even contemplated giving him a knighthood. The court was scandalized.

This really happened. Perhaps it would have made a good movie. But Frears has essentially taken the kilt off John Brown, put a turban on his head, and replaced the brogue with Southeast Asian-accented English. All the elements are there from Madden’s film: sniveling patronage seekers, a playboy Bertie, upper-class snobbery, and racism.

As for the racism, it often seemed as if the entire point of imperialism was to conquer new peoples the English could despise and belittle. You can easily imagine what people who racialized the Irish and Scots thought of the dark-skinned Abdul and Muhammad, who accompanied him, or Abduls’ burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law. Still, one of the many problems in Victoria and Abdul arises when Frears populates the picture with deplorables: Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Sir Henry Ponsby (Tim Pigott-Smith), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Dr. James Reid (Paul Higgins), Baroness Churchill (Olivia Spencer), and on and on. There are just two sympathetic individuals: our titular characters. Others probably were this awful, but under Frears’ misdirection our antagonists are mere twits with less depth than cardboard cutouts.

Frears compounds the problem by striking an unneeded semi-burlesque tone. Aristocracy has a way of lampooning itself without the addition of freighted clownish demeanors that invite bemusement rather than outrage. Frears adds other puzzling touches. What was he thinking when he cast Simon Callow as Puccini and then uses him solely to set up Dench’s atonal attempt at a few measures of Gilbert and Sullivan? Such light-hearted moments serve mainly to blunt the full force of things we’re supposed to take seriously: Britain’s plunder of India, Abdul’s personal burdens, the anachronistic nature of monarchy, ethnocentrism…. In essence, Victoria and Abdul plays like any of a number of British East-meets-West comedy/dramas that proliferate like midges.

Frears doesn’t even seem to know how he wants to portray Abdul—as an exotic, a sycophant, a mesmerist, a tragic victim, or just another schemer who’s better at it than English lickspittles. Oh, I forgot; Abdul also plays travel agent. Be prepared for your Wikipedia lesson on the Taj Mahal. The whole film is as boring as English noble nabobs. Like most second acts, Victoria and Abdul is vacuous and forgettable.

Rob Weir     

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