Victoria and Abdul a film by Stephen Frears. With Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard. ***
I found this movie captivating. The story of an unlikely friendship between an aging Queen Victoria (Judy Dench) and an Indian servant named Abdul (Ali Fayal), it shows the lonely old woman—who has let herself go to the extent that she has utterly forgotten her table manners; watching her eat at a ceremonial dinner is like watching a two-year-old—first falling for his looks and the way he smiled at her, though he wasn’t supposed to make eye contact; then being charmed as she misinterpreted some things he said to her and assumed he was an artist (actually, he was a clerk at a prison); taking him as a religion teacher when he told her he had memorized the Quran; actually taking Urdu lessons and becoming an apt pupil; seeming jealous at first when she heard he had a wife, then welcoming the wife and her mother to the royal palace; defending him to her retinue when they complained at the ascension of this colored person; facing down a real mutiny of her staff that bordered on treason; asking for Abdul on her death bed; finally resigning herself to death when he recited Rumi to her. It was a warm, funny, heart-warming story, perfect in this age of raging conflict over immigration.
The problem was I didn’t believe it.
“When did it say they found Abdul’s diaries?” I said to my wife after that flashed on the screen at the end. I was trying to take all the information in.
“2010,” she said.
2010! For a story that began in the late nineteenth century? And the whole thing was pieced together from the man’s own account? The book that told this heart-warming story was reviewed in the Times Book Review this past Sunday? How did it get to the multiplex so fast?
I think Victoria and Abdul officially qualifies as an oldster movie, a category which I’ve been neglecting lately but which made a strong comeback in this this movie. (Full Disclosure: the man who created this category is 69 years old himself.) The small theater was practically sold out for our showing, with what seemed to be a group from an assisted living facility; the ongoing banter during the previews was deafening, and I was thankful that it quieted down for the feature, because I didn’t see how I could go from row to row and quiet this rowdy crowd (wasn’t sure they’d be able to hear me). Victoria’s meals alone were a kind of porn for them, the way she tore into some kind of fowl at her dinner, splitting it apart with her hands, the way she dove into the profiteroles even though they were the sixth course (calories be damned. Hell, they probably hadn’t even invented calories in Victoria’s day). But then to have this sweet handsome young man actually wait on her, kneeling to kiss her foot (after he had brought her a weird wobbly gelatin concoction). It was an old woman’s dream.
But then she wakes up.
I suppose it’s possible that an elderly Queen Victoria struck up a friendship with a servant, even someone so unusual as an Indian servant (she was, at the time, Empress of India). It’s possible she took an interest in him, and maybe got interested in his culture, and even his language. But she maintained her interest even when he told her he was married, and she not only insisted her fetch his wife, but gave the two of them their own cottage? When he lied to her about a mutiny in India, telling her it was the Hindus who revolted, rather than the Muslims? When a doctor discovered that the reason he hadn’t had any children was that he was riddled with gonorrhea (how did this devout Muslim, married to this sweet plump young woman with a major nose ring, come down with the clap?)?
There has to be a moment when you say No, this movie is superimposing 21st century sensibilities on a 19th century situation, Judy Dench is a great human being and I’m sure this is exactly how she feels, but Queen Victoria? Really? She saw no contradiction in the fact that she was the Empress of India, and was occupying Abdul’s country?
There must be a moment for everyone when it all becomes too much. That happened much earlier for my wife that it did for me. But even if you’re totally caught up, when the man was allowed to be alone with the Queen of England on her deathbed, and quoted Rumi to her, you’ve got to say, Whoa. I think he had a small pony tail, but where was his craft beer? And why didn’t he credit Coleman Barks?
There is one character who seems in touch with reality, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), Abdul’s Indian sidekick, who sees the way he’s currying favor and hates the hypocrisy of the whole situation. There’s a scene where the authorities—including the future King—try to get him to turn on his friend, and he tells them off in a particularly brutal fashion. I’m sure that scene could no more have happened than a number of others. But it was a nice counterpoint to the huggy kissy situation all around it.
This ranks high as an oldster movie. But it should be filed under Fairy Tales.
 She’s no longer sure of that year.
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