Lording over the colonies is all bore and bother for the queen in Stephen Frears’ sumptuous yet centerless Victoria & Abdul. The film dramatizes Queen Victoria’s spirited friendship with Abdul Karim, a charming clerk from northern India who — in this telling — jolts the Empress of India from her dotage with a smooch to her tootsies. Frears stages this for sprightly comedy. Having previously caught the queen’s eye, Abdul (Ali Fazal) gets presented to her at one of the banquets she half-snores through; for reasons the film leaves us to wonder about, he drops to the floor and kisses her feet. Cue the outraged tutting of royalty, aristocrats and other snooty sorts, including the servants. But new alertness kindles in the eyes of the queen (Judi Dench): She’s dazzled.
Soon, she requests that Abdul attend to her as a servant, and in no time after that he’s won her heart with talk of mangoes, garam masala and his touchingly Gumpian conviction that life is like the Indian rug on the floor of her chambers. (“We weave in and out to make a pattern,” you see.) He jolts her, a little, with the news of the demolition of some of his homeland’s treasures by British soldiers. “British soldiers?” she says, the thought unthinkable. The one time that the topic of empire grows heated between them, the queen shuts down the discussion with this declaration: “We are all prisoners, Mr. Karim.”
Frears is adept at the comedy of attending to the queen, at tracking the platoons of antsy family and attendants who dress her, serve her meals, eavesdrop on her conversations, schedule her appointments and dash about in mad tizzies attempting to honor her every whim. Dench, of course, whets a line like “We’re all prisoners” so that it cuts, so that — even if you roll your eyes at the thought of the queen’s misery being comparable to that of the colonized — you probably will feel some for the world’s most powerful woman, alone at the center of everything, isolated from the planet she rules. Dench makes the queen’s curiosity touching: Victoria’s keen to learn Hindi (she calls it “Indian”) and even more thrilled when Abdul proposes Urdu instead. Dench, now 82, is delicious in the role of eager student, her Victoria savoring each mouthful of unfamiliar sounds — and also savoring her children’s disgust. Dench suggests the queen’s curiosity, her hunger for connection, her interest in spiritual matters, her cranky rebelliousness. In real life, in her last years, Victoria wrote 13 volumes of journals in the Urdu that Abdul taught her over the objections of the future King Edward. (Dench has played Victoria before, in John Madden’s 1997 drama Mrs. Brown, another story about the queen adrift until she grows scandalously close to a man she cannot marry.)
So, Victoria & Abdul knows its queen and her reverence for the man she would come to call her munshi. But its Abdul, I fear, proves something like a Rorschach or that cave in The Empire Strikes Back — you’ll get out of him what you take in. I caught a flash of impishness when he bends to kiss Victoria’s feet, a hint that he knows this will win him favor, but when rhapsodizing over carpets and curries, his motivations are opaque. Fazal plays Abdul as an apparently guileless enthusiast, a gushing wise man who looks as if what matters most is friendship itself, not the life-changing patronage of the queen. Despite opening with Abdul in his hometown of Agra, employed keeping records at a prison, the film holds mostly to Victoria’s perspective, never exploring Abdul’s own thinking.
We’re as surprised as the queen is to discover, deep into the film, that Abdul is married. The film skims right over why Abdul might have kept this to himself, as if the filmmakers fear that audiences couldn’t bear any suggestion that Abdul could also be a cagey flatterer, securing power for himself from the naive head of a cruel and exploitative empire. This Victoria, like the real one, sets his family up in cottages at each of her homes — what does Abdul say about his station to his wife and his mother-in-law? A comedy from Abdul’s point-of-view could be much more interesting than what we get in Victoria & Abdul’s increasingly tedious back half, which concerns Victoria’s efforts to keep her son and staff from sending her noble instructor packing back to India. The munshi beams politely through all this, never fighting back, a passive afterthought.
Lee Hall’s script skips over the lands that Victoria awards Abdul in India, and it condenses his and Victoria’s relationship from its full 14 years to something like two. For Victoria, this friendship seems, among other things, an act of defiance, a declaration of self; for Abdul, it is, among other things, a matter of otherwise impossible upward mobility. But according to the emotional logic of Frears’ film, for both it is above all else a matter of the heart. Abdul doesn’t seem to fear the loss of his homes and station — he appears above all else to want to stay close to his special friend.
Ignoring the rich complexity of these circumstances diminishes the history and its participants. Minor characters, confounded at the sight of a Muslim in the queen’s chambers, continually regard Abdul with a who does he think he is? stink eye. Frears’ film snickers at the royal retinue’s disgust, but it makes no more sense of what’s going on than they did.