Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship
In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance. The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India. Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).
The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.
Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over. Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself. Bertie, who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long.
Abdul’s swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves. For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable. To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante. For the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.
In the climax of Victoria and Abdul, the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they welcome Abdul into their midst. She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech which is a masterpiece of acting. It serves as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.
Queen Victoria is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness. In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).
And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi. He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.
Note: Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909. The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.