Review: ‘Victoria and Abdul’ refuses to dig deeper
MANILA, Philippines – It all sounds irresistibly enchanting.
The aging queen of the largest empire in the world meets a lowly commoner hailing from one of the territories she rules, and despite the differences in culture, religion and social position, they form a bond.
Queen and clerk
Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul takes an obscure page in history to present exactly that.
Abdul (Ali Fazal), an ordinary prison clerk, is spirited away from India to London to present a commemorative coin to Victoria (Judi Dench), the queen of England for more than 50 years. During the presentation ceremony, Abdul dares a glance at the monarch, who is clearly uninterested in the plethora of tributes. They make eye contact – which becomes the start of a relationship that may or may not be romantic, depending on one’s appreciation of the gestures that are exchanged and the motivations governing them.
This is precisely the most glaring problem of Frears’ film.
It lacks commitment. In its rosy-eyed presentation of events that can either be slanted to be humorously cute or starkly political, Victoria and Abdul exposes a flagrant refusal to dig deeper. Frears writes both Victoria and Abdul as individuals far removed from their positions and politics, turning them into charming pawns in an admittedly comical love story that is also confused in its own romantic pursuits.
Missing the chance
The absurdity of the situations is definitely pleasing. Frears capably transforms the strange circumstances of a commoner miraculously rising the ranks – to the chagrin of everybody else – into amusing gags, seemingly making a statement about the needlessness of rigid structures and traditions.
It is just that the topic begs to be something more than superficial and Frears simply misses that chance.
While the film attempts to steer towards suggestions that the blossoming relationship of the queen and her Muslim friend has social implications, it seems that the film is content to offer quick glances instead of pushing the fictionalized elements of history for compelling provocation.
All in all, the film’s restraint and modesty are quite frustrating.
Thankfully, Dench is a powerful presence in the film. There is elegant levity in her portrayal of the tired queen, making the monarch’s bouts with mortality arrestingly moving.
Don’t get me wrong. Victoria and Abdul is solidly entertaining. It breezes through the narrative with hardly a jitter. If the objective is to carve an escapist fantasy out of a history of two nations whose rocky relationship deserves more than just a wink and a twirl, then the film is a success. However, the film stubbornly slides out of its responsibility to make that part of English history matter. – Rappler.com