Did you know late in her life, Queen Victoria had a relationship with an Indian servant named Abdul Karim? What kind of relationship? One that brought great shock to the upper crusties of her court. One that was largely erased from history following her death. One that was uncovered when Karim’s diaries were discovered in 2010. One that’s treated as a jaunty source of sport in Stephen Frear’s “loosely” based on real events drama Victoria and Abdul.
On its surface, the premise seems like that of one of Philippa Gregory’s history-inspired bodice rippers. A queen, aged and alone, lives a life of luxury but ruthless routine. Everyday is banquets and bores, ceremonies and ass-kissers. She longs only for respite and the occasional parfait. But then, one day the monotony is shattered by a tall, dark and handsome man, who drops to her feet and tenderly kisses her toes. He’s exotic. He’s got a touch of the poet in his speech. His very presence is an escape from her gilded cage. But Victoria and Abdul doesn’t have the daring to suggest its titular twosome’s relationship got sexual. Instead, it offers a placid (and vaguely offensive) tale of friendship and the shortcomings of being a queen.
It’s a shame. When Abdul (Ali Fazal) abruptly pitches the ceremony script to lay his lips on Victoria’s foot, it feels illicit, exciting, like in The Piano when Harvey Keitel fingers the hole in Holly Hunter’s stocking! A moment ago Victoria (Judi Dench) was falling asleep in her throne as the diners sipped and whispered around her. Now, she was awake, and alive with yearning. A long-time widow, she hungers for the touch of this dashing young man. A close-up of him innocently touching her knee to urge her proper pronunciation of an Urdu word sparks a smile on her lips, and likely a quiver elsewhere. Dench plays the role of a girl in love with a heart-seizing levity, giggling at his wooing, and swooning as he spins her in a delicate waltz. But then in crashes the plot point of inconvenient wife to kill romantic momentum. And if that’s not enough, the script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) chucks in the not-so-fun fact that Abdul is “riddled” with gonorrhea. Just like that, any of the repressed sexuality of this Victorian romance is squelched. This buzzkill is frustrating, but far more vexing is the disturbing treatment of Abdul.
Based on the title, you might think his story is as valued as Victoria’s. Hardly. Her life and royal rut is deftly established through a montage, where an army of servants roll her out of bed like a potato sack, dress her in dour black, and then force her into a long list of events, where she’s annoyed to outright cantankerous. By minute 10, we know who Victoria is, and why this man—who treats her like a woman, not just a queen—intrigues her. He’s a flirtation of a life unlived, the promise of one that might yet be enjoyed. She takes him into her confidence, and asks him to teach her of India, of Islam, of the Quran. But who is Abdul beyond symbol and central plot point? Why did he want to come to England? How can he speak so passionately of his homeland, yet happily play servant to its conqueror? These are questions that Victoria and Abdul does not attempt to answer, robbing its most intriguing character of any inner life.
Director Stephen Frears attempts to diffuse the potential outrage over the premise—which is not too far from master/slave romance—by having the queen’s consorts be overtly racist, harumphing about this “colored” Muslim so that they are the clear bad guys, while the Queen is woke(ish). She treats Abdul like people…while casually ignoring that her soldiers have smashed jewels of his culture and killed his countrymen en masse. Abdul will never call her out on these hypocrisies, instead he’ll be ever nice, docile, and stereotypically head bobbing. But Victoria and Abdul does tack on a short, squat and ornery sidekick Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to play mouthpiece. He dares to call the British “oppressors” and generally scoffs at the outlandish grandeur of the royal court’s rigorous routine. He’ll give voice to the desire that the Queen’s reign over India will fall. He’ll be the eye-rolling comic relief while comedian Eddie Izzard is trapped within the humorless role of Victoria’s power-hungry son Bertie. He’ll wither in the chilly England weather, a metaphor like an “off” mango destroyed by English imperialism. Abdul will only smile, charm, and be in every way the model minority.
Handsome, hard-working, charismatic and non-threatening, Abdul is an instantly likable figure both to the English soldiers who push him onto the ship to the United Kingdom and the audience caught up in the resplendent pools of Fazal’s dark eyes. But Abdul’s motivations remain a mystery throughout the film. The White people who surround him speculate that he’s vying for power, titles, control. Mohammed suggests he’s playing their game better than even they, and in doing so will topple the whole damn thing. The queen frets over his intentions. But the only character who doesn’t sound off about what Abdul wants is Abdul. (Well, or his wife and mother-in-law who spend 99.9999999% of the movie silent, and most of that unseen under black burqas). Even in a movie that’s meant to explore Abdul’s role in the last days of Victoria’s reign, he is an abstraction, pleasant but unknowable. At best, it’s poor storytelling to leave such a central figure so devotedly undefined. At worst, it’s racist. Sure, Lee and Frears paint him primarily with positive traits (save for that gunked up junk), but by never bothering to give him complexity or motivation, they keep him an exotic gimmick instead of a person.
There are some delightful moments in Victoria and Abdul. Most of these are when Frears acknowledges the inherent absurdities of the court life, like when an elegantly dressed child barrels down pristine hallways bellowing “SOUP!” to warn that service is to begin. To her credit, Dench does her damnedest to bring a layered performance to Victoria, spinning a sort of sequel to her Mrs. Brown.
When confronted by traitorous children and courtiers, she is marble, cold and hard. When looking upon the sunny face of Abdul, her eyes glitter like that of a school girl’s. When considering the loves she’s already lost and how long the road of life still seems to be, she crumbles, and crushes us. Dench and Fazal share a charming chemistry that sparks with lust from at least one side. But shamefully, Fazal is given little to do but look good. And hey, if this were a low-rent rom-com, maybe that’d be enough. But the auspices of historical drama demand more characterization, and more concern for the hidden truth. Yet it seems Frears was too afeared to give us anything but the most mundane take on this mysterious and strange relationship. And look, it’s not that every relationship needs to be so easily defined as sexual, romantic, maternal. But to cut off the possibilities at the knees keeps us from understanding the richness of bonds that aren’t so easily defined.