About a week after I saw Victoria and Abdul I was asked what it was like and said “No battles, and I don’t think that ANY of the uniforms were authentic.” Which does as a review for a certain kind of audience, but the movie isn’t really aimed at wargamers.
I’m not sure who it is aimed at, other than people who like Judy Dench in Mrs Brown and wanted a second bite at the cherry. Cue this, which is stuffed full of good actors giving good performances without me being able to arrive at any clue about what they were trying to achieve. Make Victoria’s court look like a shower of creeps? Definitely managed that. Call the Raj into question? Are we still in doubt about that? Make Victoria look like someone who didn’t realise what was happening in the Raj? Yes, that comes across, but it’s slightly hard to believe that Victoria was quite that clueless about the biggest part of the Empire.
Mostly, though, it’s a confusing movie, because nothing changes and no-one gets any older, so that the whole Abdul deal looks like it unfolded over the course of a couple of years in Victoria’s dotage. In reality, Abdul came over for Victoria’s golden jubilee, and was part of the Royal Household for fourteen years. Ali Fazal doesn’t age a day from one end of the movie to the other, which given how dreamy he looks straight out of the box is a completely understandable decision, but it makes the movie more or less silly as a story. It also passes up the opportunity to tell the real story, which seems to have boiled down to a wily Indian self-promoter doggedly outlasting the pettiness of a whole building full of equally wily English self-promoters. Instead Abdul Karim is shown as a wide-eyed innocent charming the Queen while being almost oblivious of the malice of the English Court. It makes for a simple story of evil aristos stomping lovable exotics, but it’s not what happened and it’s not even the story which today’s audience really needs to hear.
As it stands, Victoria and Abdul is a condescending fantasy about how the Raj was really the best thing which could have happened to the child-like Indians; sure, the movie’s full of petty English villains (none more villain-y than Eddie Izzard’s Bertie, the royal it’s been OK to hate through most of my adult life), but the order of things is never questioned. There’s nothing wrong with having aristos running things, just that these ones weren’t very nice. Maybe it’s just a cheering story for the times we live in, where much of England is harking back to the empire and most of it is in a permanent state of panic about dusky islamists showing up and disrupting things. Certainly Victoria and Abdul isn’t going to put any of that audience off their kedgeree.
What’s annoying is that there’s a stealth version of the right movie hidden in Adeel Akhtar’s Mohammed, Abdul’s doomed comedy sidekick. England literally kills him, and along the way he treats us to a bitter commentary on the Raj and everything wrong with it before succumbing off screen to Hollywood coughing-up-blood disease. We should have had a lot more of Adeel Akhtar, not least because he’s a very good actor.