Victoria and Abdul (dir: Stephen Frears) is the latest example of an established genre of films which has developed the trick of holding up a mirror to the British as a people, seeing a certain amount of ugliness but then managing to come up smelling of roses. The ugliness we see is usually something along the lines of snobbishness, held in place by obscure tradition and blindness to the suffering of the lower orders (the protagonists in this type of film are mostly drawn from the upper classes). The smell of roses, which typically becomes apparent only during the course of the film, is provided by oodles of charm and eccentric traditions. The whole is then seasoned by at least one outburst of commonsensical grit, often combined with a flash of self-knowledge, which transcends the surrounding unpleasantness and leaves the British audience with the feeling that they are, at root, still a nation of good eggs. We might call this the Very British Feelgood movie. Prime examples of the VBF are Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Queen and The King’s Speech. The Bridget Jones series and the Bond films also exhibit VBF tendencies.
This film tells the story of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) a humble clerk from Agra, brought to England in 1887 to be a servant, who charms Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with his youthful good looks and cheeky manner. He encounters the universal jealous disapproval of the palace folk around him (to accommodate Victoria and Abdul into the VBF genre we have to add ‘rather racist’ to the fault list). The Queen exhibits no racial prejudice in this context and continues to to support Karim to the extent of giving him the title of Munshi, a kind of clerk and advisor, to the Queen. He teaches her Urdu well enough for her to write a journal in the language. Despite the ever stronger opposition he remains in her service until her death in 1901.
All of the above is well attested, even down to the strongly sentimental affection between them. The film’s changes to the known facts can mostly be put down to the practical necessities of the considerable craft of screenwriter Lee Hall rather than a failure to understand history. Along the way, the film avoids accusations of insensitivity by ticking certain boxes. Hard-edged political critique of imperialism is represented by Karim’s co-servant Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) a radical who has the distinction of telling Bertie, Prince of Wales (magnificently brought to life by Eddie Izzard) to stick the British Empire up his bottom. Mohamed dies shortly after this scene. The religion of Islam is fairly represented too. Most people in the court cannot tell the difference between Hindus and Muslims but the film makes it clear that Islam can be a religion of tolerance and redemptive wisdom. It is Karim who is allowed to make the joke about not being able to tell which is which out of two women wearing burqas.
The forces of disapproval (that’s pretty much everybody who isn’t Victoria or Abdul) include the much lamented Tim Piggot-Smith and Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury. Of course it is Judi Dench who holds the film together, revitalising interest and adding subtlety at every turn. Inevitably it is given to Dame Judi to display the flash of grit which will dispel the surrounding unpleasantness. Faced with the threat of being certified insane unless she renounces Karim – the Royal Doctor actually has the signed papers in his hand – Victoria launches into a catalogue of self-deprecation: “I am cantankerous, greedy, fat, perhaps disagreeably attached to power … but (here comes the grit) I am anything but insane!”.
Quite how an assertion of one’s own grumpiness can beat a signed certificate of insanity is not made clear, but it works in the context of the film. The mood has changed and love (and Britishness) has triumphed. Interestingly the speech is almost exactly analogous to one, also given by Dame Judi, in Sam Mendes’s Bond film, Skyfall. Here the British Secret Service is under attack for its aged incompetence. Dame Judi (as M) stands up in an enquiry and quotes Tennyson’s Ulysses to magnificent effect (“We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven… but strong in will … to strive … and not to yield!”) as we see Daniel Craig sprinting through the traffic. In this case too, M and Bond are vindicated in the context of the film. Once again there is a logical disjuncture when you think about it.
Victoria and Abdul remains diverting and amusing to the end, as befits its status as a VBF film. It does not distort history but it dramatises it to the point where scenes often seem like set pieces rather than real life. As it happens, Puccini makes a brief appearance in the movie, enthusiastically brought to life by Simon Callow. It did occur to me that, had the nasty Bertie not done his best to destroy all records, Puccini’s La Regina e l’Indiano might conceivably have taken its place in the world Operatic repertoire. The film really would make a cracking opera, right down to the beautifully played and directed death scene where Karim offers Muslim prayers to comfort the dying Victoria. And as with the best operas we are forced grudgingly to admit that, despite concerns about the the work and the convention in which it operates, it does pass a couple of hours and actually touches on questions of interest to all of us.
Victoria and Abdul is out in UK cinemas now.
- Judi Dench and Ali Fazal as Victoria and Abdul
- The real Abdul Karim