Everything about Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul is downright repellent. It’s sanctimonious and pedestrian. It’s unthreatening and designed to be consumed by the geriatric community. It’s Love & Friendship for stupid people, extricated of all wit and confrontation. The sampled population that attending my screening skewed to the senior variety and they ate this shit up. But just because your grandparents find the quote unquote problematic relationship between an elderly white monarch and her Muslim servant-cum-tutor to be cute, doesn’t make it harmless. No, Victoria & Abdul is a terribly backwards film that conceals its latent prejudices under the guise of smug progressivism.
Victoria & Abdul is content with conveying its xenophobic rhetoric through broad comic gestures. What we have is a simplistic facsimile of real suffering, the sort of glossy, saccharine, and unendurably jejune depiction of racism that, for a while at least, got you nominated for Oscars. We begin with Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), portraying the monarch with sturdy bluster, as the film’s enlightened white savior whose inelegance is only matched by her unfashionable humanism. She values her relationship with Abdul (Ali Fazal), who was initially removed from his post as a clerk from his Indian homeland to eventually function as a tutor for the Queen. Abdul’s growing stature as the Queen’s confidant rubs others, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the wrong way. Because, you know, racism. Mustache-curled, the Prince of Wales wages a personal war against Abdul, going so far as to threaten the Queen when news arises that Abdul is to be knighted.
Between the broadness in its characterization, from the open-minded morality of Queen Victoria to the irrational hostility of the Prince of Wales, we find Abdul, a blank slate of doe-eyed naivety. There’s probably a movie out there to be made about Abdul and the cerebral stress he endures in having to cast away his humanity and essentially become a soulless creature with a perpetually upbeat constitution, as that’s essentially what he’s reduced to: a saintly un-human figure designed to comfort and lallate vapid platitudes. There’s an audience for this sort of film and that kind of empty vessel of a character. They were there for Hidden Figures. And certainly for The Help. The kinds of films reassure people of banal clichés. Perhaps I don’t have the temperament for the kind of condescending attitude this and films of its ilk have; I find them passionless and devoid of anything important to say. Want to make an intriguing film about the oppressed and their tribulations? Make it about them.