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Victoria And Adbul’ Looks To An Unlikely Friendship

Judi Dench once again plays Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) form an unlikely frie...

Credit: Focus Features

Above: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) form an unlikely friendship in Stephen Frears' new film, "Victoria and Abdul."

The new film "Victoria and Abdul" looks to the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant.

Companion viewing

"My Beautiful Laundrette" (1995)

"Mrs. Brown" (1997)

"Mrs. Henderson Presents" (2005)

"The Queen" (2006)

"The Young Victoria" (2009)

The new film "Victoria and Abdul" looks to the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant.

"Victoria and Abdul" is best appreciated as the unofficial sequel to "Mrs. Brown" (1997) than as a film about how an Indian servant became the Queen’s confidante.

Both films feature Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and both look to a period in the monarch’s life when a servant would bring her back from debilitating grief. Although we may think of the Victorian Era as being uptight and prudish, Queen Victoria seemed prone to romantic scandals that rocked the royal family if we are to believe the films about her life.

In "Mrs. Brown," we find Victoria (again played by Dench) so devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Albert, that she withdraws from public life. But Scotsman John Brown (Billy Connolly), a servant who looks after the queen's horses, enters her life and ignites a passionate friendship that results in scandal and both political and personal ramifications for the two of them. The title refers to the name staffers took to calling Victoria behind her back.

"Victoria and Abdul" (based on the book by Shrabani Basu) finds the queen once again so disinterested in life that she has to be rolled out of bed each morning by servants. She has outlived her husband and her cherished John Brown and finds little to stir her interest until a young Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) literally catches her eye during the Royal Jubilee.

Victoria notes how handsome he is and invites him to extend his stay in England. His presence rejuvenates the aging queen and the two develop a close relationship that shocks and appalls her family and staff.

Dench dominates both of these films, which demotes the actors playing her servants to supporting roles.

"Mrs. Brown" better succeeds in dividing its attention between the main characters with Connolly making a strong showing as John Brown. And at least the film's title doesn't imply that the two will be on equal footing.

But "Victoria and Abdul" gives both historical figures equal billing in its title and that is seriously misleading. Although Victoria may tell Abdul in the film that he is no longer a servant, Abdul remains completely subservient to both Victoria and the film. The film takes the time to provide insight into the queen and the toll being a public figure has taken on her.

But we get no insight into why an Indian man would be so devoted to the monarch that colonized his country. Unlike Connolly, who invested his character with some gruff individuality, Fazal is unable to find any means of investing Abdul with any depth. At a time when we are sensitized to issues of race the film seems obliviously out of date in how it depicts Abdul and his relationship with the queen.

This is doubly odd since director Stephen Frears was sensitive to issues of race in his early films "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," and "Dirty Pretty Things."

There are meager attempts to be critical of the British Empire through the character of Abdul's friend but his scenes feel like token gestures at political correctness. What the film really needs to succeed is to make Abdul as three dimensional as Victoria, to give him as much screen time and development as she receives.

"Victoria and Abdul" (rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language) turns a fascinating chapter in Queen Victoria's private life into a kind of historical sitcom romance that makes light of real social and political issues that are key to understanding the relationship of these two people. The royal family tried to erase Abdul's relationship with the queen from history.

The film tries to correct but ends up committing a second injustice to Adbul by making him a supporting character in his own story. Dench, however, proves a domineering screen presence to provide a vivid portrait of Victoria yet again.

For some additional background on the real story behind the film you can check out the following articles at The Telegraph, Smithsonian, Time and Vanity Fair.

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