Victoria and Abdul

A British Agra-vation

T he problem with history written by the, shall we say, “non-winners” is an equal susceptibility to bias. There’s no more guarantee that the guy who lost the battle will give any fairer account than the guy who won it. And that is at issue with the Jekyll/Hyde biopic Victoria and Abdul.

Victoria and Abdul is two films, one cute one in which a doddering royal relic falls for a commoner and another in which all the queen’s men try to tear Abdumpty to pieces. Both are flawed as the source material comes entirely from Abdumpty himself, a 19th century Indian Muslim summoned to England as scenery for Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). I believe this is Dench’s 47th go round as English royalty. I hear she plays Prince Charles next; that ought to be fun.

In the 19th Century, Victoria became empress of India, a land she never visited for fear of assassination. Now what’s the good of ruling a land you never visit? Vicki, baby, you don’t call; you don’t write. What’s an oppressed nation to think? Indian prison clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) wasn’t actually missing his Empress, yet eagerly sprung to attention when the British Empire needed him to present a worthless coin to Her Majesty. So long as you can get behind the idea of ancient fool Victoria playing out her last days, this part was, dare I say, fun. Victoria and Abdul jumps right in on lampooning the British need for redundancy by having a second Indian follow Abdul everywhere for absolutely no reason. At a state dinner, we’re introduced to the idea that once the queen is done, everybody is done. Good thing Takeru Kobayashi isn’t sitting on the English throne; the aristocracy would starve to death. The British need for ceremony and rigmarole is a facet that doesn’t get exploited enough on film, IMHO. And I feel like the last to do it with flair was the Monty Python gang.

Fascinated with meeting his queen, Abdul makes, protocol-wise, one faux pas after another until Victoria requests his service as personal valet. It’s hard to say what she sees in the man; the film seems to imply she’s smitten with his looks, which -while reasonable on film- seems a tad vain and unrealistic considering the source material: “I was so hot that Queen Victoria forgot about her empire for me.” My guess is the real-life Victoria was fascinated having someone around who wasn’t an English lackey. Variety is the spice of life, and India is just choc’ full o’ spices. Anyway, before you know it, Victoria and Abdul are close enough to be their own portmanteaux – Vicdul? Abtoria?

Accepting this story on face value is a bit of a stretch. It has the verisimilitude of truth; there’s certainly a lot of detail attached, but it suggests that the inventor of the Victorian Era was seduced by the charms of Indian Howdy Doody. Ali Fazal rests comfortably in the obsequious zone all film long; his Abdul is equally as complicated as a word search on the back of cereal box. The film celebrates a heretofore unknown relationship that is, indeed, worth celebration. But were they really that close? And was every other Buckingham resident, passerby, or well-wisher a complete racist dick? I guess that would explain why nobody knew Abdul’s story, but I can’t believe that’s the entire truth.

Technically, Victoria and Abdul is a sequel, no? Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown twenty years ago. I’ll give this film credit for not putting a roman numeral in the title. Wanna help me come up with titles for the third in the Victorian trilogy? “Victoria Stationary” “Queen Victoria: Nothing this senile ever dies” “Queen III: Victoria’s Secret” Just some thoughts; feel free to chime in with your own.

♪She keeps some Metamucil
In her royal cabinet
Goes to bed at 4 o’clock
Just like great uncle Chet
At hand, a PM tree
From Bill Lamb to Disraeli
There’s no commemoration
She will decline
Scottish reign and tartan plaid
Remembering just makes her sad
Extraordinarily bites

She’s a silver queen
On horseback, she won’t be seen
Sucking down the clozapine
Has this girl lost her mind?♫

Rated PG-13, 112 Minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall
Genre: History?
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Misunderstood Muslims
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: Anyone who would ever proudly utter the phrase, “the sun never sets on the British Empire”

♪ Parody Inspired by “Killer Queen”

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