3 Stars – Wholesome
It has been a celebrated fact that in the thousand-year history of the British Isles, the three most enduring monarchs were Queens: Elizabeth I, established a generation of protestant believers by rejecting Catholicism which had been scandalously confronted by her father, King Henry VIII; Queen Victoria ruled for most of the 19th century and became a cultural icon that to this day references both an era of social behavior and architecture; Surpassing Victoria, the current reigning Elizabeth II now has the longest record of service in British history, and symbolizes the only western monarch of substance left in Europe.
Victoria And Abdul is a mostly true tale about an affectionate and caring friendship that occurred at the end of Queen Victoria’s life. Although the film makes it appear as if their time together was over a relatively short period, the real Abdul was her Muslim "Munshi” (spiritual advisor) from 1887 to her death in 1901. Most of what we know about this relationship was only uncovered from writings of Abdul that were discovered in the last ten years. At Victoria’s passing, her son who became King had Abdul deported back to India and all of their correspondence burned.
Queen Victoria, played by the incomparable Judi Dench, gives us a window into the contrasting glamour and stifling nature of the monarchy. By the late 19th century, the British Empire was the preeminent ruler of much of the world, including India where Abdul was a civil servant. Every aspect of the Queen’s life was staged and she was trapped and imprisoned in its cocoon. Prince Albert, the love of her life, had died years earlier, and her various children had become spoiled and culturally stunted in their views of the world. In many ways, she was ready to die, with every state dinner and royal event becoming part of her death sentence.
It is noteworthy that Dench has played the part of Queen Victoria before in the film Mrs. Brown (1997) and played Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love (1998). At the time of the filming of Victoria And Abdul, Ms. Dench was already one month older than Queen Victoria when she died.
In 1887, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was selected in India to go to England to be the presenter to the Queen of a coin commemorating her rule over the Indian subcontinent. Having no clue where he was going, the experience at the Palace was an overwhelming cacophony of sights and sounds centered on an old woman who appeared to be very unhappy. To the horror of the chattering class of monarch rats that scurried around her at all times, Abdul shocked the guests at a state dinner where he was to present the Indian coin (and warned not to look at her), when he did so and subsequently fell to the floor to kiss her foot in respect to his Queen!
Without giving away many of the delightful moments of interaction that followed, needless to say, Abdul became a friend who was invited to stay at the palace and became the only “real person” with whom the Queen could have a conversation – or could trust. In order to give him standing to be in her presence, she elevated him to the role of spiritual advisor, even though Abdul was Muslim and she was the official head of the Church of England. To say that this was viewed as scandalous by her children and the royalists in Parliament would be an understatement! Much of what followed is the growth of Victoria’s fondness for things that were real, and the rest of the country’s fondness for her to live without feeling as a symbol of their power.
The portrayal of this affectionate relationship between a mother and her “adopted son” is both endearing and sad. The most powerful woman in the world controls all things physical, but almost nothing emotional or spiritual, despite her being the head of the Anglican Church. She is truly a bird captured in a gilded cage, and her biological offspring cannot wait for her to die so they can claim her dynasty. While the Queen and the humble Abdul have little culture and theology in common, their desire to give and receive love and kindness to one another is the deepest and most precious gift and possession of all. In the 14 years before her death, Queen Victoria’s heart was transformed in a way that modeled an acceptance of people different than her own culture and a desire to love without judgment. This is an aspect of the “Victorian Era” that we should respect and cherish the most.
1. The film doesn’t give much insight as to what influence the Church of England had in the life of Queen Victoria. What could the Queen have taught Abdul in return?
2. The Queen was given a new lease on life in her old age by somebody showing compassion and service. Many older people feel isolated from anyone to care about them. Where are you making a difference in the life of someone who is in the later stages of life?
3. The imprisonment of power and fame often stole the life of a person in the monarchy in both the 19th century and today. Where in your life do you see influences that steal your life?