First, there is “Victoria and Abdul”, an excellent British movie directed by Stephen Frears.* The British have been making a few movies and TV’s series lately, about the old British Empire. Partly nostalgic, and partly critical of the imperial experience, this movie is another of that ilk. It is based on a true story.
In 1887, it was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, sovereign of Great Britain and Empress of India. (This was back in the days when Britain ruled India.) In that year, the Queen took on an Indian servant named Abdul Karim. He was highly intelligent, the Queen took to him, he taught her much about the culture and language of India, and he remained her close friend and confidant until her death in 1901.
In the role of Victoria, is the incomparable Dame Judi Dench. She portrays the ageing, irascible, yet ultimately kindly Queen to perfection. In the role of Abdul is a young Indian actor, Ali Fazal, who is good in the part, though he perhaps slightly over-does the “wide eyed, innocent colonial” bit. A galaxy of well-known English stars are in supporting roles: for example, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, and Tim Pigott-Smith in one of his last movie roles before his untimely death earlier this year. How well I remember him as Ronald Merrick in the 1984 TV series “The Jewel in the Crown” (coincidentally also about British India).
The movie is partly drama and partly comedy. It delightfully skewers and mocks the habits and culture of the English ruling classes of that era. While doing so, it sympathetically shows how amazed (at first) were the Indian servants (there were several including Abdul) at the habits of the English. The dinner party scenes where the Indians wait on tables are excruciatingly funny.
Yet, at its heart, the film is also a serious study of the racism and narrow, social snobbery of the British upper classes at that time. The Queen’s own family distrusted and disliked Abdul right from the start, fearing he exerted a baleful influence over Victoria. Abdul was hated by the other members of the Royal Household, who envied his closeness to the monarch. Her ministers in the British government were little better. The wonder is, that with all this envy and dislike surrounding him, Abdul lasted as long as he did in the Queen’s service. Only she stood between him and his enemies in the English establishment. The film concludes sadly and bitingly with how his enemies triumphed with Victoria’s death.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It illuminates a little-known incident of Britain’s imperial past, while providing a tour de force of Judi Dench’s acting ability. The film has been criticised in some quarters as nostalgic praise for imperialism. I disagree. The movie shines a searching, critical light upon the more disreputable outlooks and prejudices of the English grandees who ran the Empire.
But, enjoy it most of all as a tender and fascinating tale of a deep and unlikely friendship between two totally different people, who found solace and contentment in each other’s company.
I give it 4 ¼ stars out of five.
* The 2nd one is "Battle of the Sexes". I'll write about it later.