For someone who was raised in the revolutionary heritage of the United States, the fascination with the royals of England is bewildering. From the latest Netflix entry of The Crown to the upcoming release of Victoria and Abdul, the amount of material seems to be endless for this regal family. The most recent look at the past chronicles the final 15 years of Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) life and her platonic relationship with her spiritual advisor, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). The desire for the general populace to see behind the curtains of Buckingham Palace and into the lives of the Royal family provides a wealth of dramatic content to keep the audience happy.
In 1887, Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) were sent from India to England to present Queen Victoria with a coin from their home country to celebrate the monarch during her golden jubilee. Once their purposes were served, the men were expecting to return to India, but Karim manages to catch the attention and imagination of the head of the British Empire. Seeing the opportunity that is presented to him, the young Indian strives to be a suitable companion and teacher to the aging queen. Over the 15 years of his service, he teaches her majesty his native language and becomes one of her most trusted advisers. He eventually attains the title of Munshi, which means spiritual teacher. Their bond causes resentment amongst the castle staff, from his own people and from within Victoria’s own family. Abdul gave the queen a fresh view of the changing world, but their friendship eventually costs both of them a great deal.
Director Stephen Frears has become the champion of the biopic with his recent productions of Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena and The Programme. He continually looks to the past for inspiration for new material. Within this preferred genre, his muse continues to be Dame Judi Dench who fronted the camera for Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents. Unfortunately, this latest collaboration between these celebrated and well-travelled artists may cause more lethargy than cheers from the audience.
The challenge of developing the central characters and their 15-year relationship is reminiscent of watching Jane Austin characters walking across the moors of England. The scenery provides a visual spectacle, but it cannot make up for a long arduous journey for all involved and does not always translate into engrossing cinema. Focussing on Queen Victoria in her later years means that there is minimal action and a heavy reliance on strong dialogue to support the multitude of slow walks and desk scenes. Dench is a master of verbal delivery and Lee Hall’s screenplay has hints of promise, but the oral sparring and quick wit come too infrequently to save the incessantly slow pace.
This leisurely stroll through the years presents another difficulty for Frears in that he manages to leave out key historical elements from the actual tale. His direction and Hall’s writing should not be labeled as revisionists of history, but the sudden jumps in the time continuum make for confusion in the actual relationship between Abdul and the castle staff. These spatial gaps not only cause disorientation but unfairly paint the young Indian as being faultless in amongst these huge rifts with the royal household. This character imbalance makes him out to be inexplicably saintly and the English to be the sole cause of all of the issues in the breakdown of cultural relations. This does not help to develop a case for Abdul, but leads to more questions of his actual character. The question remains whether he was merely an arrogant opportunist or a true saint. Neither are satisfying answers, but the film fails to successfully answer these queries into his true motivation.
Victoria and Abdul provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the British Commonwealth. The oppression of India and the dysfunctional world of the royals have the potential for great theatre. Despite all it has to offer, the drama is not enough to keep the inevitable comparisons of this film to a boring history lesson or the potential cure for insomnia.
REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? One element within the story line is the notion of multiple cultures and religions. One role of the monarch of England is to be the figurehead position of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. While on the other side of the discussion is Abdul Karim, who as a devoted Muslim is allowed to speak the truths of the Quran to the head of the British Empire.
The story leads to the potential idea that all roads of faith lead to one god. This universalist ideal would not be held by any of the major world religions. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity come from a position of monotheism, meaning there is only one God.
So, what is the answer to pluralism: There is no better place to start this investigation than with the words of Jesus.
Jesus told him, “I am the Way—yes, and the Truth and the Life. No one can get to the Father except by means of me.” – John 14:6
One way, one truth and one life in Jesus.