A look at Victoria & Abdul (PG)
MOST of us who have studied history either as an academic pursuit or as a hobby in later life reckon we know a fair bit about Queen Victoria’s reign.
After all she was on the throne for 64 years with her titles ranging from Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to Empress of India so there’s plenty to study.
So it’s only when diligent director Stephen Frears brings us the tale of Victoria‘s study of the Urdu language and her knowledge about tracts from the Koran that most of us are going to acknowledge we don’t really know a whole lot about the great monarch.
In Agra Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are selected by colonial authorities to present the Queen with a special Indian coin to mark her Golden Jubilee.
Off they go by sail and steamship to London and upon arrival are instructed how they should proceed silently to the Royal table and hand the Queen the coin. On a gilt-edged cushion of course.
Abdul is enchanted by the whole scene and against all orders and strict late 19th century protocol engages the Queen in conversation.
Victoria (Judi Dench) is intrigued and summons Abdul the next day. And so her education in Indian culture and the Koran begins.
Of course the Queen’s growing fascination with Abdul leaves her courtiers aghast. Not just the household team headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (the late Tim Piggott-Smith) but the courtiers as well.
Prime among this group are the toffee-nosed pair of Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams) and Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar) with Phipps eventually delegated, towards the end of the tale, to inform the Queen of the growing discontent.
An uncomfortable, virtually squirming Phipps tells the Queen the household staff will resign en masse should the monarch carry out her intention to knight Abdul.
So Victoria orders the staff to assemble in a vast downstairs reception room where she dresses them down.
Abdul does not, as it turns out, become Sir Abdul but there are one or two late revelations about him which come as surprises. Especially the medical one.
It’s quite late in the piece Victoria sorts out that Abdul is actually Muslim and not Hindu. Of course Muslim soldiers were the instigators of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when they refused to load cartridges into their rifles because the cartridges were smeared with pig fat.
That revelation, exacerbated by her courtiers, causes tension between the Queen and Muslim Abdul yet we’re never exactly sure why the great Queen remains so attached to him.
We know she feels trapped inside her own privilege although being awoken in the early mornings and bundled about by maids and servants to face the day’s appointments aren’t particularly endearing.
Two of the great characters in Frears’ tale are Abdul’s mate Mohammed and the future King Edward VII, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard).
Izzard portrays the Queen’s eldest but downtrodden son in a perfect blustering manner. His resentment of his all-powerful long-lived mother could even have resonance in the current Buckingham Palace scenario.
Mohammed is forced to stay on in England to keep Abdul company. He hates everything about his new country – the climate, the food and prime among all else the British exploitation of his own country.
His ultra cold digs at the top of the royal apartments in the servants’ quarters don’t help him health-wise either as Mohammed is never given the luxury of an estate gamekeepers’ lodge where Abdul, his recently arrived wife and mother-in-law reside.