Set in the waning days of Queen Victoria’s reign, Victoria and Abdul depicts the end-of-life friendship Queen Victoria struck up with Abdul Karim, a servant sent from India during her golden jubilee. Abdul is a low-level clerk in a prison in India, who is chosen—because he is tall—to go to England to present Victoria, by then Empress of India, with a ceremonial coin. Played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal, Abdul is likeable enough, but Abdul’s impossibly cheerful and simple persona is baffling for an era of colonization and oppression. There’s nothing wrong with taking dramatic license, but something about Victoria rings so false it’s discomfiting and makes losing yourself in the story impossible. And that thing is: WHY is Abdul so immediately fond of Victoria?
Abdul is accompanied to England by a second chosen jubilee-servant, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, The Big Sick), who voices this very concern, but Abdul’s only answer is a shrug and blank smile. The movie, directed by Stephen Frears, doesn’t ignore our modern view of Colonial Britain. Upon arriving in England, an English officer exclaims, “Civilization!” as a couple of Dickensian beggars approach Mohammed and Abdul, asking for money. There are other touches like this, where snobbish English assumptions about India and, basically, anywhere Not England, are shown to be backward and small-minded. But what the movie totally skips over is Abdul’s own real-life complexity.
The movie prefers him to be a simple, smiling, inexplicably happy chap who just loves to serve Queen Victoria out of the goodness of his heart, even though her regime has crushed his people into colonial submission. Victoria takes to him because he is handsome and fawning, and he takes to her because…she’s old? It is NEVER CLEAR why Abdul likes Victoria, especially in the face of tense Indian/Muslim-English relations. Mohammed is like, “What are you EVEN DOING?” and Abdul just smiles and is all, “She’s so nice!”
What the movie is leaving out is that the real Abdul Karim extracted from Victoria a great deal of personal benefit. Money, land, cushy government jobs for his family in India—and his own rise from servant to “Munshi”, being Victoria’s teacher in the ways of India, from learning Urdu to history to Muslim custom. The movie presents all of this as an unlikely friendship that strikes up between a lonely old widow and a displaced man who are both outcasts, in a way, and so find common ground. That’s fine, except that by cutting out Abdul’s own gain from their relationship, Victoria and Abdul creates that gaping black hole in the center of Abdul’s motivation that makes him seem so simple as a character.
Certainly, he was unpopular with Victoria’s courtiers. The Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) is embarrassed, everyone hates Abdul, and there are threats to challenge Victoria’s mental competency over her sudden Indian infatuation. Victoria, rightly, calls out all this racist and bigoted behavior, and Judi Dench is terrific in those scenes when Victoria’s sense of right is awoken and she leaps to the defense of her “dear Munshi”. (This is the second time Dench has played Queen Victoria, following Mrs. Brown—another film about Victoria’s unlikely friendships—and she has this character down pat.) But two things can be true at once. Abdul can be an object of scorn and bigotry, but he can also be benefitting from a lonely old lady. One doesn’t rule out the other.
But Victoria and Abdul isn’t trying to be a film with complicated undertones, it’s a happy little period piece about friendship overcoming loneliness. For that to work, though, Abdul needs SOME motivation to like Victoria, to want to spend time with her and put up with the despicable treatment he receives from everyone else. But there is NOTHING. There is no reason for him to go through any of this, which is why he comes off simple to the point of stupid. That failure in characterization also makes the movie bizarrely pro-colonial and Imperialistic, which is completely tone deaf in the twenty-first century. Victoria and Abdul will work for some people—a woman down the row from me at the screening wept at the ending—but it only works because it reduces a complicated real-life figure to a way oversimplified stereotype.