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‘Victoria & Abdul’ is historically flawed fun

Oct 27,2017
Stephen Frear’s “Victoria & Abdul,” based on Shrabani Basu’s book “Victoria and Abdul,” is a shortsighted reinterpretation of the history of the British Empire and the Raj, that, taken out of its historical context, still manages to be both enjoyable and amusing.

Starring Judi Dench as a cantankerous Queen Victoria nearing the end of her reign, the film tells the true story of the lonely queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk that was initially her servant and later became her munshi, or teacher.

While the aging queen’s affection for Karim is historically accurate, Frear takes the story one step further, attempting to portray Victoria as a progressive, modern-thinking ruler that saw all her subjects as equal. The film’s only concession to reality - that Karim was a novelty in the court of the monarch responsible for incorporating India into the British Empire and proclaimed herself Empress - was a supporting cast of overtly racist members of the royal household, led by an impressively despicable Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard.

Adeel Akhtar, in the role of Karim’s sullen companion Mohammed, stood out with his humorous and often poignant portrayal of an Indian servant that resented British rule, British weather and the British queen.

Historical inaccuracies aside, Dench gives a compelling performance as Victoria, a role that won her an Oscar nomination for 1997’s “Mrs. Brown,” and Izzard manages to make Prince Bertie genuinely repugnant and offensive.

Fazal is less compelling as Karim, giving an unconvincing and wooden performance that may be the result of a screenplay that actively avoids the more controversial aspects of his character. Although Akhtar ably provides some of the funniest moments, other members of the supporting cast, including Michael Gambon and the late Tim Piggot-Smith, are relegated to the role of confrontational bigots seemingly designed to make Victoria look nicer by contrast.

As a retelling of historical events, “Victoria & Abdul” falls flat, offering just enough history to justify a rose-tinted view of a monarch who, in reality, sat at the center of an oppressive empire. Taken without that historical baggage, however, it’s an amusing and enjoyable film that provides plenty of laughs and attempts to deliver a poignant and timely message of equality.

JIM BULLEY [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]