There are times when I feel like I am a film snob. I am not sure why, but I find that most arty films that many highbrow critics enjoy monotonous and pretentious, while I lap up old science fiction, horror and homic book movies. However, when I come across what I perceive as a “worthy” film, a film telling a very important story with a very important message and a very famous cast, I can’t help roll my eyes. That is not to say that films shouldn’t have these things, hell I absolutely adored Loving from 2016’s Oscar cycle, but there is a bland kind of flat and uplifting human interest story type of film that I see more and more of coming out of BBC films in England that pisses me off to no end. Films like Philomena, Denial, and now this Victoria and Abdul directed by Stephen Frears and starring national treasure Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, star of Bollywood, a film that I think I am definitely not going to like at worst and, at best, forget I even saw it.
Based on a mostly true story, Abdul Karim is a clerk in a prison in Agra when he is asked to present a ceremonial coin to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. She takes a liking to him and becomes close to him, seeing Abdul as a teacher or Munshi. However, he is not as popular with the rest of the court.
Stephen Frears is perhaps most well known for his take on racial issues in Britain. Films like My Beautiful Laundrette, Dirty Pretty Things and now Victoria and Abdul all deal with tensions and racism that is at the heart of some of Britains establishments. However, while the first two films dealt with the modern day problems of race, Victoria and Abdul explore a difficult part of British history, one that still affects us today, the British Empire. One major question that is never really brought up through the whole film is why is Abdul so enamoured with the country oppressing him. In fact, another Indian servant does not share Abdul’s opinion of Britain. While the film may focus on the friendship between Abdul and Victoria, I feel that ignoring the wider issues that were present at the time and instead sidelining them as comical British uptightness, does a disservice to the hard-hitting topics Frears clearly wants to address.
The problem I think this film has is with its tone. It feels more like it should be about a curmudgeonly old woman in a small neighbourhood being confronted with a newly immigrated Muslim family and the respect and understanding that grows between them. Instead, it is about the Queen of England and one of her servants (who is kept in the country against his will) who loves England. The film tries to ignore the implications of this but I could not. It permeates the film with an undercurrent, something that was unsettling and upsetting. However, having said that someone once told me that a film professor told them My Beautiful Laundrette, a film that I rated quite low despite its reputation, was purposefully bad, so maybe Frears is purposefully making his film bad to make us think about unconscious racism that could still exist in Britain today. It is also likely that the film is just bad.
Technically the film is well made and acted by everyone involved. It has a cast of top-notch actors from Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott Smith, Micheal Gambon, Simon Callow and Dame Judi Dench to Bollywood Megastar, Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim. They all do a fine job, even if Judi Dench is struggling with the utter saccharine drivel that passes for a script and Eddie Izzard has 3 lines total. But this feeling of unease and discomfort still pervades and makes this film slightly unwatchable.
Victoria and Abdul should be an innocuous British film extolling the obvious virtues of tolerance, but instead it feels insidiously patriotic and proud of a time that we shouldn’t really be proud of; that time we placed thousands of cultures under our heal. But perhaps more damming of all is that it does not add anything, it tells us all things we already know in a way that we have seen done countless times before. If I wanted to hear about this story I would be better off reading the book that this movie is based on and I would get more of it for the same price as a movie ticket.
You can watch Victoria and Abdul in cinema’s now