Over the last few years, studios have been practically tripping over themselves to release new, pseudo-progressive “feel-good” movies, generally focusing on race or class differences. Technically, this is nothing new. Ever since Crash (2004) garnered critical acclaim for talking about race relations, albeit in a shallow and completely forgettable way, there has been a resurgence of these kinds of films that address issues of race only superficially. Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul is the most recent addition to the pitiful lineup.
The film seems tailor-made for those who want to feel as if they are thinking about racial issues, without actually having to dig into the realities of racial injustice. In this mindset, it is better to feel good than to think critically. Victoria and Abdul is about 20 years (if not more) behind the times, pandering to an audience of people who believe that racism is a problem that has generally been left in the rearview mirror. Watching the film must allow its prime demographic to think, “I’m so glad we left that way of thinking a long time ago,” when in reality, that way of thinking is very much alive and well. Some might argue that Victoria and Abdul is not an ostensibly bad film, just a film lacking in self-awareness. This is partially true, but the issue is not just that it seems blissfully unaware of the issues it is trying to address, but also tries to evoke emotion in the same way that so many similarly misguided films have done before.
Victoria and Abdul is loosely based on the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. In the film, Abdul (Ali Fazal) is told that he must travel to England as part of an envoy tasked with presenting a newly minted coin to the Queen. Victoria (Judi Dench), who has grown weary of her royal life, is fascinated by Abdul, and insists that he stay on as her “Munshi,” or teacher. The Queen’s courtiers and family are horrified by this budding friendship, and do everything in their power to oust Abdul and return the court to normalcy. As Victoria battles with her court, Abdul finds himself caught in the middle of an uncomfortable situation, but nonetheless wishes to remain by the Queen’s side.
Presenting an interracial relationship (whether romantic or platonic) has never been something that mainstream cinema has been able to get right. The Intouchables (2011) and 10 Jours en Or (2012) spring to mind as two recent offenders. Nonetheless, there have been films that approached race with a greater sincerity and deference to the complexities of the subject matter. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) is one of the few films that delves into the realities of an interracial relationship, without needing to make audiences feel better about the whole thing, or beat them over the head with its moral significance. Predictably, Victoria and Abdul falls in line with the more juvenile attempts, and makes it worse by turning the rather tragic story of Abdul’s life into a romantic comedy of sorts. Some of the dialogue is downright nauseating, with Judi Dench’s indifference to the edicts of the day feeling wholly untrue. While it is known that she did have a friendship with Abdul, and her courtiers were very much against it, the film turns every moment between the two into a bittersweet, dough-eyed love fest. Not only is it disingenuous from a historical perspective, it is just poor storytelling.
As much as I like to play devil’s advocate and give every film a fair chance, there is little positive that can be said about Victoria and Abdul. Yes, the costumes and sets are all well-done, and the photography is good enough; but any film with a budget and an experienced director of photography can do this. Visually, it does nothing to revolutionise the medium, nor does it even try to improve upon tried-and-true practices. The performances are melodramatic and not the least bit believable. It is, however, exactly what it sets out to be: a vapid, feel-good movie. There is nothing wrong with this kind of approach per se, but when such a film also tries to deal with issues of race, it ends up coming across as completely ignorant and misguided.
Rating: ★½ out of 5
If you are still interested in watching Victoria and Abdul, the film is currently available to purchase via Amazon here.