Based on the book by Shrabani Basu, Victoria & Abdul tells the true story of the unexpected friendship that developed between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, an Indian man recruited to partake in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, leaving his home and sailing to England alongside his friend Mohammed to do so.
Though initially only tasked with presenting the Queen with a ceremonial coin, Abdul finds himself given the title of “the Munshi,” or advisor, after Victoria takes a liking to his candidness, which is a stark contrast to her odious staff. Much to the increasing outrage of the xenophobic court staff, Abdul stays in England far longer than expected, teaching the Queen Urdu and recounting things about his home country that she will never see with her own eyes.
Victoria & Abdul is enjoyable in the way it lightheartedly pokes fun at stuffy colonial institutions. The film’s fast-paced opening scenes, which openly mock the extreme lengths the British court staff take in order to abide by court etiquette, make for a brilliant introduction to its plot. Mohammed’s unbridled hostility toward the British Crown is delightfully sardonic and, crucially, complements Abdul’s apparent enchantment with the Queen. The film provides basic critical commentary regarding the many dimensions of the beast of imperialism, and how two people can find themselves totally isolated when they refuse to obey the expectations of those around them.
At the same time, there is only so much history that can be encapsulated in a roughly two-hour film. Audiences get only glimpses of character development: a bitter but brief monologue reveals the Queen’s deep loneliness in relation to the people who serve her, and disappointingly little attention is paid to Abdul’s allegiance to his people and his feelings toward his family, who are brought to England from India at a later date. The true story upon which Victoria & Abdul is based is remarkable on its own — and one cannot help but wish the ramifications of this important relationship had been dealt with in more depth, even within the time constraints of the film.
It is important to remember that Victoria & Abdul is a tragic story in spite of the comic moments that dominate its plot. With the Queen’s eventual passing, Abdul is quickly evicted from his home, and his belongings are set ablaze in an attempt to destroy the mementos of his relationship with Victoria.
It is encouraging that, due to its reach and its exceptional cast, Victoria & Abdul will bring an important true story to the attention of the general population. The closing scenes of the film are heart-wrenching and appear to have been tacked on as afterthoughts to the otherwise cheerful plot. Though its lighthearted tone makes the film enjoyable to watch, perhaps more attention should have been paid to the parts of the history that were not quite as comical.