Victoria and Abdul review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s something so irresistibly charming about the performances of Judi Dench and Ali Fazal that I could just narrowly overlook the international politics that are mostly cast aside for character chemistry. We don’t focus so much on the questionable tactics of Queen Victoria (Dench) or the lies of Abdul Karim (Fazal) to tell a more sweet story that shoves the darker aspects to the background. But I’ll be damned if the two of them aren’t so cute that I wanted to saver all the sugariness of the couple.
As a sweet period piece, the film shines with personality. Dench plays the Queen as an aged, tired, and disinterested royalty, so bored by the decadent royal lunches she falls asleep before dessert. But in comes Abdul as a man of great talents in India but is looked down upon by the royal staff for the honor of bestowing a guest to her majesty. He wants to show his appreciation deeply and, against the better judgment from he scrutinizing staff, kisses her foot as a sign of respect. While the rest of the royalty panic, the Queen has a newfound interest in such a man willing to showcase a new form of affection.
The jolt goes further when the Queen requests to meet with Abdul alone and they hit it off big time. She finds Abdul to be a wealth of knowledge she finds tantalizing, from learning new languages to trying new food. The charming nature of both characters during their intimate scenes are so damn adorable I found it hard to erase the smile from my face every time they share a scene. And the film gives them plenty of moments for them to shine together, be it writing lessons, picnics, or casual strolls among the grounds.
Of course, this love can’t last not just because of the real world of conflicting politics and racial tensions but because we’d probably get a cavity of there was no tension. The royal staff thinks the Queen mad for letting a man with a turban be so close to the Queen, teaching her all sorts of new things they don’t feel properly reflects England. They seek any excuse to excuse Abdul from the Queen’s side and will go to extreme lengths to push him back, going so far as to giving physicals and informing the Queen of scandals surrounding her favorite Indian. Some of it is slander but some of it is the truth, placing Victoria in a very compromising position.
As you may have guessed from the setup of such a scenario, the darker aspects tend to fade for the relationship at hand. New of wars, rebellions, and genocides are almost uncomfortably swept under the rug so we can enjoy the scene of Queen Victoria demanding to try a mango for the first time. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a cute bit with a silly payoff but you really have to distance yourself from the rest of the international stage to enjoy it. In this aspect, the film makes the smart call for trying to be more of a character comedy than an all-encompassing period drama. Can you imagine if the smile-worthy scenes of Abdul going on walks with Victoria was punctuated or juxtaposed by bloody international conflict? Such scenes would carry an even more uneasy bitterness.
Victoria and Abdul does pretty much what one would expect it to do, weaving charm and comedy to the meeting of these two minds and little else. For keeping its head in its lane, I found the film a joy for what it set out to be. But take heed not to poke your head too far out of England to peer at the world abroad of this era. It’s safer inside where Victoria can sing wildly and Abdul can be offended by gelatin.