Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
So there's good news, and bad. Which would you prefer? Let's start with the former.
Victoria & Abdul belongs solely to Dame Judi Dench. The 82-year-old remains a tour de force on screen, dominating every scene she's in. Every bat of the eyelid, every turn of the face, every imperceptible or obvious gesture, movement and expression of hers carries dramatis beyond gravitas. Dench humanizes the Queen of England and Empress of India from a remote symbol of British imperialism to a determined old lady fully aware that her entire household, including her son, the future King Edward VII, are waiting for her to pass on to the "great banquet hall of eternity".
Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal, is positively anaemic in comparison. While gorgeously dressed and accoutred, Fazal simply can't hold a torch to the blazing brilliance of his co-star. And perhaps, we can't blame Ali for this: he emotes beautifully with his eyes and plays the role of a servile and amiable servant to royalty with aplomb, but it doesn't quite match up to the rest of the formidable cast.
Michael Gambon (aka Dumbledore from the Harry Potter movies) plays the Marquess of Salisbury and Prime Minister, while Edward is played by Eddie Izzard, who is magnificent. Indeed, if anyone holds their own against Dench, it's Izzard. His frequent and plaintive remonstrations of "Mummy!" to Victoria captures the very essence of a man who has been waiting to ascend to the throne for nearly half a century.
The film itself is sumptuously set, no surprise given director Stephen Frears' fascination with the British monarchy as exemplified in The Crown series and The Queen film, also helmed by him. The camera pans over and manages to capture the pomp and the might of the British Empire at its strongest. However.
"This is completely unacceptable," notes Dench at some point during the film, and when it comes to some elements of the story, we have to agree. That racism was rife in the British Empire is a fact of history. The filmmakers provide an unflinching look at these racial and classist divides and manage to do it with a certain flair, given that the most racist moments were greeted with laughter from the audience. It was almost a whimsical throwback to a quaint and uninformed times.
Yet, the audience squirmed a bit when it came to the portrayal of Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent. It's common knowledge that the British used the time-tested theory of "divide and conquer" to reign over their empire and rein in any objections to their rule. We know that, all of us do. And while it makes sense to show that in a periodical drama, the filmmakers chose a strange way to do so. They pitted the Hindus against the Moslems, with Abdul firmly on his brethren's side. For instance, he tells Victoria that it was Hindus who fought the Revolt of 1857, much to the dismay of their British-loving Muslim neighbors who seem to want to perpetuate the empire. And while Victoria's advisors soon dispell the notion, the film continues to reflect a perceived difference between cultured Muslims and uncouth Hindus.
Perhaps it's an attempt to make Islam more palatable to a terrorism-plagued West, but it seems tone deaf in a post-2014 India, where it might just fan certain undesirable flames.
Also, Edward is portrayed (beautifully we admit) as an almost Gestapo-like bigot whereas in truth, Edward VII was famously cosmopolitan and deplored the treatment of colored peoples by white Europeans. During his Delhi Durbar, for instance, he insisted on meeting and spending time with Indians despite fierce opposition from his advisors and court.
All in all, we can only end with what the filmmakers begin the movie with, a caveat that "This is based on a true story...... Mostly."