Culture / The Saint

“Victoria and Abdul”: An unofficial sequel loosely based in fact

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Left: a page from a notebook written in Queen Victoria’s own hand, featuring two lines of Urdu. Right: Queen Victoria (seated) with Abdul Karim (standing).

Story by Yashowanto Ghosh, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of English Heritage/Twitter, Wikipedia

On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, the Raj selects two Indian men to travel to England to present a commemorative gold coin to the Queen. One of those Indian men—Abdul—finds favor with the Queen herself and is retained in her immediate service, much to the consternation of the rest of the royal household—this is the story of “Victoria and Abdul.”

The film is billed as an “unofficial sequel” to “Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown,” which was a sleeper hit back in 1997; the plot of “Victoria and Abdul” starts four years after the death of John Brown, the main male character in “Mrs. Brown.” Academy Award winner Dame Judi Dench, whose portrayal of the Queen in “Mrs. Brown” also earned her an Academy Award nomination, reprises her part; Abdul is played by Ali Fazal, an Indian actor. Many of the other characters common to the two films, such as the Prince of Wales (who, at the end of “Victoria and Abdul,” succeeds his mother to become King Edward VII), Sir Henry Ponsonby, and Lady Churchill, are played by different actors this time around, but, with 20 years separating the two films, that bit of discontinuity is not likely to bother the viewer.

The new Prince of Wales is the English comedian Eddie Izzard, whom you may remember as Roman Nagel in “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Izzard is well known as being critical of England’s colonial history—he talks about it in his stand-up comedy routine “Dress to Kill,” for example—and he plays the Prince of Wales accordingly. The new Sir Henry is the veteran English actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who died in April, and “Victoria and Abdul” is dedicated to the his memory and the memory of production designer Alan MacDonald, who died in August.

“Victoria and Abdul” has received much criticism for its disregard of reality in broad details of fact, such as its depiction of the Queen on a solo crusade against her staff’s racism and their resulting opposition to Abdul, or its depiction of Abdul as a flat character.  I personally don’t see why art should pay any attention at all to questions of verisimilitude—as long as the film isn’t claiming to be a substitute for your history class, it should have no obligation to history. It should have the freedom to take what it wants from history and change what it wants to change, and I wouldn’t call it revisionist history unless it calls itself history. The film only says it’s “Based on a true story … mostly.” Queen Victoria really existed, as did Abdul—among other things, he gave her lessons in Urdu, and there are notebooks to prove it (as seen in the photograph above)—but the film is within its rights if it shows us a Queen Victoria whose person, personality, thought, speech, or actions don’t quite match those of the historical referent.

Abdul being a flat character is a different matter, though. While I think it perfectly all right for a film to show me a partially fictional story (or even a fully fictional story), I do still expect to see a fully developed story, and the film does fail in that department.

Overall, I give it three stars out of five, but only because of Dench.

About the Writer…

Yashowanto GhoshYashowanto Ghosh is a senior with a major in communication and minors in journalism and writing. Jasho is also an alumnus of Aquinas (B.A. German ’11).

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