Victoria and Abdul tells the story of Abdul, a young man bought on an errand to Queen Elizabeth’s court, who rises to become a key advisor, entangled in the intrigues of court. Or it’s the story of a charming friendship between a young man from India, and an old and embittered woman who happens to be the Queen of England. It’s hard to tell which movie Victoria and Abdul wants to be.
There are a number of things that fell short for me in watching Victoria and Abdul – but, to talk about them, I need to talk a little bit further about the plot. So in case you’re wanting to weigh up whether to see it or not, without hearing spoilers, I’ll say that it might be worth it if you’ve already read about the underlying history, or are a huge fan of the monarchy. Otherwise steer clear.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
The story starts with Abdul unexpectedly taken to England, to deliver a small coin to the Queen. When he’s there, he unexpectedly makes eye contact with the Queen – she notices how handsome he is. As a result, he and his fellow traveller are called upon to serve desserts to the Queen. There, he throws himself at her feet, and kisses the royal foot in an act of devotion. She appreciates the gesture, and brings him and his fellow traveller as footmen into the royal study. There, he’s left in isolation with her, and he takes the liberty of telling her about her carpets, and his own experience.
So far, so good. Abdul’s actions generate responses in the world around him: he is a protagonist with agency.
But after about the first third or half of the movie, Abdul ceases to be a protagonist. As the other members of the Royal household and staff feel threatened by his increasing prominence, they take action. In response, the Queen bestows greater favour on Abdul. This pattern repeats itself several times – something happens, the Queen bestows greater favour on Abdul. There’s very little agency or action by Abdul.
Another factor that left me wanting more was the film’s perspective on Abdul. At points, it’s clear that Abdul has lied, or burnished the edges of the truth, in order to present things more favourably to the queen, including his own past. At the same time, he’s presented by the movie as a devoted friend, by the other Indian at court as a courtier playing the same game as everyone else, and by the other courtiers as a rogue adventurer taking advantage of a vulnerable Queen. It’s never really addressed by the movie – not because it’s been clever about how it treats the material, but because it’s scanty. We don’t really know Abdul, because we only see him make one or two difficult choices – whether to accept the Queen’s offer to leave as she knows she’s dying, or to stay till her final days and risk (as happens) being thrown out.
A final missing piece in the movie was that it wasn’t clear what fascinated Abdul about the Queen. Is it her power? Does he view her as a symbol? Or is there a human connection? It’s never really clear. And so the depth, the richness of transitioning from seeing Elizabeth the symbol, monarch of an enormous empire, to a human being with foibles galore, is left unexplored. It’s a disappointing gap.
The film has several excellent comic pieces at points; but at others delivers quite cynical political speeches. Though each of those registers is done reasonably enough, the shift between them doesn’t feel well done, or earned – it just feels disjointed.