Let me say this at the outset: I love Stephen Frears, and I think anyone who isn’t blown away by Judi Dench might need a psych eval.
And if you think those are fighting words I’m going to take one step farther out onto the ledge before I start complaining about a few glaring missed opportunities in Frears’ Victoria and Abdul. I can’t know what was in Frears’ head or that of screenwriter Lee Hall, but I’m kind of wondering if everyone was so scared shitless of being excoriated no matter what they did with the character of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) that they left his character to be a sort of glyph in a misguided attempt to evade censure for perceived clueless, or bigoted, handling of an Indian Muslim character. It strikes me that we might be looking at a political correctness casualty, which ironically looks a lot like its own opposite. Actually I’m not sure that’s irony—it might just be physics.
The film is part fantasia, “based on true events … mostly.” Abdul Karim was a real person and he really did find himself sent to London to present something to Victoria, one of whose titles was Empress of India. She really did take a shine to the guy, and he really did become her confidant and Munshi or teacher, which really did piss off more than a few royals and power-mongering government types. And yes, the Queen actually learned, at a fairly advanced age, to read and write Urdu. There is a great deal of missing information about Karim, in no small part because King Edward incinerated a great deal of paper that would have shed light on the nature of Karim’s actual relationship with the queen.
But in reality, the presence of an Indian person around the British palace would not have been shocking in its day; India was part of the British Empire and there were scads of Indian folks in London just as there were tons of British people in India. Yes, Karim disgruntled a lot of peripheral toadies, but since we don’t see much character development on that front, we’re left to assume it was wall-to-wall racism of which Victoria was a shining curmudgeonly bastion of resistance. Noblesse Oblique? Whatever you want to call it, it obscures the fact that what a lot of folks apparently disliked about Karim was his relentless jockeying for power. In the film, having him knighted, to the horror of the peanut gallery, was the royal whim of Her Majesty. We do know enough about Karim to know it was something he spent years lobbying her for. The passive and saintly portrayal not only does the culturally, um, embarrassing work of erasing the brown guy by making him nothing but a foil for Victoria—it also makes the movie hollow and boring, and I feel sad saying that about Frears. Had they made Karim a little more ambitious and unsavory (which in reality it seems he probably was), they would have made both characters more interesting.
This kind of glaring character development omission aside, as a treatise on a person accustomed to power and privilege who has no power whatsoever over the impending end of her life, Victoria and Abdul is stunning. Judi Dench, who, earlier in her career played an earlier version of Victoria in an earlier oddball companionship situation, inhabits Madame Just Lie Back and Think of England with her typically amazing keenness, and watching the 82-year-old actress in this particular confrontation with mortality and loneliness and always having to be playing some role or other is kind of dazzling. Frears still has a good eye—even if he did render one of the two titular characters as a human ellipsis—and the period details and style and feel of the film are lovely.
With this in mind, I’d like to be able to advise people to just go with it and focus on what the film gets right. But you won’t be able to, so I’m not going to say it. I heard someone refer to the film as Driving Miss Victoria, and it was impossible not to cringe, because, yeah, the film earned that. The choice to position Victoria as basically the only non-racist in upper-class England was cheap and uncomfortable, and the failure, in a film where racial and religious tension are explicit concerns of the story, to make the brown guy either so saintly he’d make Teresa of Avila blush or else a total cipher—well, it sticks out.
Veracity in historical “true story” filmmaking is tricky as hell, and I am quick to stand up for reasonable veracity as a responsibility we owe historically significant persons when we are translating them to, say, a large-budget movie. Frears knows this, and that’s probably the reason for the winking “mostly true story” note that scrolls past. He had a tough historical subject in Abdul Karim because much information about him as a person has been lost. That can be tough, but it can be an opportunity to be brave.
For fans of Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul will be utterly worth it—but as much as it pains me to say it, this film suffers from a lack of bravery. At least I hope that’s what it is because the alternatives—sloppiness or something even more insidious—are unworthy of Stephen Frears.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall
Starring: Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
Release Date: Sept. 22, 2017
Amy Glynn is a minimalist.