The lonely helplessness of the world’s most powerful woman

Victoria & Abdul ****

What’s it about? A bored and melancholy Queen Victoria befriends an Indian Muslim clerk after he is sent to England to present her with a Jubilee gift from the sub-continent that she rules but has never visited. As she advances his position, making him her “munshi” (teacher) and then her personal secretary, concern and anger grow among her aristocratic courtiers, led by her son Bertie, the future Edward VII.

Who directed it? Stephen Frears. It is not his first film about the British monarchy; he directed The Queen (2006). He has also worked previously with Dame Judi Dench, in Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and Philomena (2013).

Who is in it? Dench plays Queen Victoria, returning to a role she has played before, in Mrs Brown (1997). More recently, she has enjoyed success as M in seven James Bond movies. Her performances in two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films have also helped propel her into ‘national treasure’ status. By contrast, the role of Abdul Karim is played by a newcomer to Western cinema; Ali Fazal appeared in Furious 7 (2015), but has a strong pedigree in Bollywood movies. Bertie is played by the comedian Eddie Izzard, building on a cinema career that includes Whisky Galore! (2016) and the Ocean’s 12 and 13 films.

My view. Dench may be revisiting the role, but this is much more than a reprise. This time, Victoria is more than 20 years older than she was in Mrs Brown, and Dench’s portrayal of her is even deeper and richer. What has not changed is her unpredictable choice for male companionship.

In one early scene, Abdul tells Victoria the story of the Mogul emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his dead wife, and how he was eventually deposed by his own son. “The cruelty of children,” she says, and one of the film’s themes is how Victoria used Abdul (and John Brown before him) as substitute for her own children, whose behaviour and character had added to her sense of isolation after the early death of her beloved Prince Albert.

Her loneliness is apparent, as is her sense of helplessness; she is the most powerful woman in the world, but all she can do is wait for death to reunite her with “all of the people I have cared for.”

Wishing she would hurry up with this is her eldest son and heir, played with a tremendous mixture of impatience, frustration and malevolence by Izzard. Surrounding him and his mother is the royal court, a pit of intrigue and social climbing – which is mirrored, to the courtiers’ increasing fury, by Abdul’s swift elevation from servant to the Queen’s right-hand man.

The part of Abdul is much less defined. I’d like to think this is deliberate on Frears’s part. Abdul is a blank canvas, on which the other players project their own desires and prejudices. Victoria sees a loyal and trustworthy friend. Bertie and the courtiers see a charlatan and a threat to the established order (he is both “common” and – horrors! – coloured).

Fazal does as much as can be expected with the role, but make no mistake, this is Dench’s film. I wouldn’t be surprised if it earned her yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Watch this film if: you have a passing interest in the British monarchy or the British Empire, enjoy historical drama, or want to see one of Britain’s great actresses turning in an outstanding performance at the age of 82.


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