The flip tone struck by Victoria & Abdul’s opening title card—“Based on real events…mostly”—doesn’t begin to prepare you for the offenses that Stephen Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall commit throughout this period docudrama. The film’s opening minutes, which detail young Indian clerk Abdul Karim’s (Ali Fazal) first encounter with Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) when he and another man, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are recruited to come all the way to England to present Her Majesty with a gold coin minted in India, offer a few mildly amusing and eye-opening insights into the daily rituals of British royalty (the queen’s guests aren’t even allowed to finish their meals if she’s done first). But the satire of the absurd rigidity of British social customs that such bits represent feels old hat at best, with Frears having already accomplished a more incisive job of critiquing the milieu in 2006’s The Queen.
For a while, however, the breeziness with which Victoria & Abdul chronicles the initial stages of the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim is at least a refreshing alternative to the kind of pedestrian prestige-pic filmmaking exemplified by The Queen. But the light touch can only do so much to distract us from the kid-gloves approach to the colonialist, class, and racial conflicts that this film touches upon. Nuance is the first thing Hall throws out the window in his screenplay, with Queen Victoria being characterized as a beacon of broad-mindedness and all of her underlings—including her ruthless son, Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard)—painted as mustache-twirling villains practically frothing at the mouth with racist disgust at the mere sight of Abdul. This is the kind of simplistic perspective that comforts rather than challenges viewers, especially with the benefit of historical hindsight: We can smugly flatter ourselves into thinking that at least we’re not as unenlightened as the arrogant rubes who surround Queen Victoria.
As Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan displayed toward Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, Victoria & Abdul exudes great sympathy for its central monarch. As written by Hall and poignantly performed by Dench—who previously played her in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, about yet another unconventional relationship earlier in her life—Queen Victoria is a woman who laments what she feels is a wasted existence, who finds the aristocratic life soul-sapping and thus latches onto Abdul as a savior of sorts. But whereas Queen Victoria is imbued with depth, Abdul remains a cipher. We never get a sense of his own dreams and desires; he appears to remain content to simply be a servant to Queen Victoria for the rest of his life. Only one brief moment offers a hint of a more self-serving motive behind his desire to sustain this friendship: a scene in which he expresses to Mohammed his excitement about living the high life in the royal court instead of out on the streets in his hometown of Agra. And at that moment, one wonders whether Abdul has more of the social climber in him than his outward warmth toward the queen appears to suggest.
Mostly, though, Abdul is painted as a one-dimensional saint, a fountain of wisdom and understanding. By denying Abdul a rich inner life and privileging the white characters in its narrative, Victoria & Abdul exposes itself as insidiously hypocritical: It pretends to be a progressive skewering of colonialist attitudes but ends up being as condescending to its central character of color as the discriminatory Brits it purports to critique.