TL;DR – A beautiful film, wonderfully acted, but it does glaze over history
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
So we are about to look at Victoria and Abdul a film that promotes itself as ‘Based on Real Events’ … ‘Mostly’. Now, on the one hand, this could sum up most ‘based on true events’ films, but it is telling that they had to add the disclaimer which we will see as we go through it. Overall I did like Victoria and Abdul despite its many issues, but it does present a very one-sided view of the past and that is deeply problematic. Though I must say it was interesting watching the BBC make something that is almost irreverent about the Royal Family.
To set the scene, in preparation for Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) Golden Jubilee, the British Governors of India decided to present the Queen with a commemorative coin and decided to send two local Indians to present it to her. One of those chosen to go is Abdul (Ali Fazal), who was chosen not because he had a good eye for details, and the carpets he p[icked out was liked by the Royal Family, it was because he was tall, that’s it. When arriving in London with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) the other presenter, they are put through the intricate steps of a formal dinner, how they are to present the coin, and they are instructed that under no circumstances are they to look the Queen in the eye. Well, can you guess with other those things Abdul forgets to do, well it turns out to be not a problem as the Queen finds the young Abdul to be quite charming and eventually askes the both of them to be her footmen, much to the chagrin of the Royal Household’s staff. Now, even though this is a story about history, you should probably know that there will be [SPOILERS] incoming.
So before we begin I do have to give say there is quite a lot of Victoria and Abdul that really does work. The first has to be the performance of Dame Judi Dench, no one could pull off such irreverence and still have an air of class. I really liked her story of someone who is just tired of it all, but she keeps on persevering. Her relationship with Abdul felt genuine and not forced which really helps drive the narrative of the film. Indeed, in general, I think most of the cast gave really strong performances. As well as this, some of the locations they visit in the film are simply stunning. It immediately gives your film that little bit more authenticity when you film in the real locations, like Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. On top of this, while I will be critiquing the tone shifts in the film, I also have to admit that parts of Victoria and Abdul are simply hilarious, particularly the dry wit of Mohammed.
Ok, one of the issues with Victoria and Abdul is how it deals with tone, which unfortunately jumps around all over the place. I have heard Victoria and Abdul described as a comedic drama, but I don’t think that really fits per say. It is more that the first half of the film is a comedy and the second half is a drama, and this shift in tone is almost like tonal whiplash. I’m sure the aim was to get people engaged with characters through Victoria’s irreverence and Abdul’s ‘fish out of water’ experience, before dropping the emotional weight of the film on them, and you have to admit it made for some good fodder in the ads promoting the film. However, that transition between the two halves of the film was not handled as well as it could have. You see this in a way that some characters are almost cast aside for the sake of the narrative, like Mohammed who dies off-screen. Now, this is not a deal breaker, but it does impact on the film, and I do wish they had spent a bit more time getting this tone shift right. This is especially noticeable because there is a real drag during the second act.
However, where the film does fall down is in how it romanticises the past, and really glosses over the role of colonialism. In a film about class, racism, status, and all that jazz, it sadly glosses over the brutal role Great Britain had as a colonial power, whose effects can still be very much felt in the world today. Things that should not be sanitised are sanitised, or worse played for laughs and no matter how well other parts of the film are this was always sitting there as I watched the film.
In the end, despite my misgivings, I did like Victoria and Abdul, and for the most part, it was because the cast gave truly memorable performances. If you are a fan of British period pieces then Victoria and Abdul will probably be a must watch for you. However, I was left wondering if there was a better film in there somewhere if they had dropped some of the laughs for reality.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Victoria and Abdul
Directed by – Stephen Frears
Screenplay by – Lee Hall
Based on – Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu
Music by – Thomas Newman
Cinematography by – Danny Cohen
Edited by – Melanie Ann Oliver
Starring – Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, Julian Wadham, Olivia Williams & Fenella Woolgar
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: PG; United States: PG-13