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Film Review: Victoria and Abdul

A (mostly) historical biopic about Queen Victoria and one of her Indian servants, this movie is as entertaining as it is royal.

Before watching this film, which I very kindly got from viddsee's giveaway, my partner had warned me about the poor reviews the film had received, mostly based on the politics that it misrepresents.

However, straight from the get-go, I found myself laughing my head off at how Abdul was chosen for his innocent task. It is indeed to director Stephen Frears' credit that he is able to juxtapose the triviality of the mohur with the pomp and grandeur of the queen. This has the effect of convincing the audience that Abdul and the Queen's meeting was inevitable. Indeed, Frears is able to expand delightfully on the meat-and-potatoes of the story, Abdul and Victoria's relationship, a credit to him based on the limited historical resources at hand. He drew connections with Victoria's past relationships with King Albert and John Brown to strengthen its historicity as well as add to its romance. Indeed, it is rare to see a platonic relationship between a man and woman portrayed on film. Heck, this reviewer cannot remember the last time a film was made without sexual desire driving the plot! Anyway, coming back, given that it is Judi Dench's second time playing the Queen, her casting is impeccable and a great pairing with Frears.

Yet one thing I found lacking was the "salad dressing", or minor characters who would have helped Abdul appear more 3-dimensional. While the Queen has all the political backstabbing and intrigue around her, with her son, Edward and his conspirators, Abdul barely has any. What little there is, in the form of Muhammed and Abdul's wife as well as his mother, seems to be merely there to showcase other aspects of Indian identity. Perhaps that is why some viewers accused the film of engaging in Orientalism. Certainly, aside from one or two brief asides with Muhammed, we are never given much access to Abdul's thoughts, making him seem somewhat like an overly eager servant without much thoughts of his own. A pity, given the necessity for such films in today's age of increasing intolerance, where welcoming the Other/foreigners is no longer as it once was.

Queen Victoria's embrace of Abdul, his religion and lifestyle was moving to say the least and though the film's ending was tragic, it leaves us with a blueprint that can be followed in the hopes of a more open future.

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