Just as film and television has turned its eyes to Winston Churchill’s legacy in the last year, it’s also been reassessing the character of Queen Victoria. A queen given her title at a very young age, she went on to become the ‘grandmother of an empire’. The after-effects of that empire would go on to define leaders like Churchill, and the damage left behind by British rule is still felt today. It gives those in charge of cinematic portrayals a challenge, of deciding how they want to show a segment of history that lends controversy.
Directed by The Queen’s Stephen Frears, Victoria & Abdul is aware of the historical controversies behind the plot, but it chooses to show them from the perspective of a leader who they show as being largely in the dark. Set as a sequel to 1997’s Mrs Brown, Judi Dench takes on the role of Queen Victoria during the last years of her reign. Never a stranger to challenging those around her, she took Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazel) on as her teacher, or Munshi, in order to learn more about the Indian empire she now ruled.
The story itself is fascinating – records of the unique teacher-pupil relationship was destroyed almost entirely by Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, but it came to light just seven years ago when Karim’s diary was discovered. It’s not difficult to understand why Frears felt it important to bring the story to life, since Karim faced strong racism and opposition from the queen’s court – an attitude which feels all too relevant today with the intensity of Islamophobia in recent years.
At its heart, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul is well-played by the two leads. Dench is fantastic as ever and Fazal is excellent enough to hold his own in the scenes. If you were to go on the film and not ponder on the historical context behind it, it’s easy to enjoy Victoria challenging perceptions and Karim’s enthusiasm for his own culture. The monarch’s struggle with her old age is beautifully done, especially as a follow-up to Mrs Brown, and the film is sumptuous, with rich costumes and settings.
That said, the film paints the racism of the court in broad strokes, while only hinting at the discontent that many Indians felt. Adeel Akhtar gets a small role as Mohammed, Karim’s fellow servant who is deeply disgusted with the effects of the empire on his home. Much of this is played for laughs however, as the film endeavours to recognise grim historical facts with a light, bright tone. It’s tricky, and doesn’t quite work.
Recent cinema has preferred its historical biopics to cover the bad parts, but only in small, palatable bites. The recent Churchill comes to mind, which glossed the British prime minister down with too much reverence. Viceroy’s House also tackled difficult subjects, but received criticism for cushioning them. As well-meaning and enjoyable as Victoria & Abdul is, it’s too comfortable in the gorgeous British stately homes to really give us an impression of where Karim was coming from, or what pain Mohammad had seen to spur his anger.
Those working in the genre of historical drama should of course be applauded for taking small investigative steps into the tougher, contested sides of history, but they’re just that – small steps. As much as Victoria & Abdul criticises racism, it packages everything into a comfortable, gently comedic viewing experience to avoid ruffling feathers. The fact is, history isn’t comfortable, and if we’re going to look at the racism felt in Victorian Britain, we should understand the dramatic effects it had abroad as well.