First off, before we start, I know I usually do these spoiler-free, but I can’t with this one, so this review will contain major spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Victoria & Abdul might be the most uncomfortable I’ve felt watching a movie in a very long time. It isn’t often when that happens, but in this film’s case, it really left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. It’s certainly a film with good intentions, a story where two characters who could not be more different are being brought together through empathy and understanding despite everything the people around them do to keep them away. Yeah, sounds great, and rather timely. However, the film we ended up getting is one where a white Queen takes a fancy to an Indian servant, who is inexplicably devoted to doing whatever to make her happy…just cause.
Don’t let the title fool you, this is a film about Queen Victoria, and how she deals with the people around her. Abdul is an absolute non-character, and that’s the biggest sin the film commits. We know so little about him going in, and we never get a sense of who he is as the film goes on. He is sent to England to present a coin to the Queen, along with Mohammed, and he is more than honored to go unlike his colleague who will often go on short rants about how he hates serving the oppressors. And the racial politics soon begin to rear its ugly head by making Mohammed, the one character who is actually questioning Abdul’s devotion, the comic relief character as well. His moments of humor are often at his expense, usually making light of his misery of being in England, and it undercuts any of his critical comments. He even makes a quick comment about Abdul being like an Uncle Tom, which is an appropriate reaction, but the film does nothing to address or challenge that. And once the film has no more use of him, he ends up dying off-screen (which, yes, he did die in real life during his service, but I’m speaking purely from a storytelling perspective). If that sounds bad, there’s even a running gag during the opening scenes about Mohammed being taken to England because he’s covering for a guy who died in an accident involving an elephant. This is apparently so funny, they repeat it about three times, which is just gross and tone deaf.
Queen Victoria first sees Abdul when he presents her the coin, and he goes against warning by making eye contact. She goes on to say she finds him handsome, and makes him her personal footman, and eventually her “munshi,” which is basically a teacher. You’d think the moments of them together, with him teaching her, we’d learn more about Abdul, but that simply isn’t the case. All he does is tell her about things in India like mango, curry, stuff like that. The only time we ever come close to learning about him is when he reveals he’s not a Hindu (as some of the Royal Household members have called him), he is in fact a Muslim. He teaches her about the Quran and how to write in Urdu. This is all about how he benefits and enriches her life, no matter how much she promotes him, he is always be in a position where he is in service of her.
The film makes his character even more bizarre by having him lie to her about himself. He tells her about his background back in India, and it isn’t until around the halfway point that it was all a lie. Turns out he is no scholar, he is a commoner, and oh, by the way, he was married this whole time (and we find this out when he literally tells her that he considers the Queen “more special” to him than his own wife). This shocks the Queen, and understandably so, since he kept this whole side of his life a secret, for seemingly no reason. He never even mentions his family in scenes where he is alone or with Mohammed. But of course, she forgives him, like she does with every other incident where he was weirdly dishonest. In fact, she ends up inviting his wife over, and we cut to later when we see these two women in a full burka showing up at the palace, as well as some nameless kid who never shows up after being introduced (one of the Royal Household members refers to him as a “servant boy,” but after some research, I found out that Abdul brought his nephew at some point, so I guess that’s who that was). The two women are his wife and his mother-in-law, and they are even more thin than Abdul. The mother-in-law is never named, and never really shows up again, and the wife has one scene, and doesn’t speak until the ending. Why they are even brought up aside from the fact that they were real people, I have no idea. Who these women are, what are they life, how is their relationship with Abdul, what’s the deal with the kid? None of this is ever addressed, leaving Abdul to be even more of a profoundly bizarre mystery that barely resembles a character. He doesn’t even have much agency to him, he’s so passive as a character. The idea that, according to the Queen herself, “Abdul has risen on his own merits,” is total nonsense. It’s not like he came to England with any ambitions, he came to do a quick job, got lucky that the Queen considered him cute, and was handed every promotion thereafter on a silver platter just to spite her angry family members.
While there may have been some interesting things to mine out of the friendship between Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria in real life, the film never digs deep. Everything is presented in a clean, soft, charming manner. This is a household where the prejudiced members are portrayed in a way that feels harmless and quirky and played for laughs. And the film certainly doesn’t even attempt to confront the horrible things that the British Empire has been doing not just in India, but around the globe. The worst thing is that Queen Victoria doesn’t even seem to really care. Her empathy to the plight of Indian people begins and ends with Abdul (and eventually his family), and that’s it. She’s informed of a famine in India by the Prime Minister early on, among several other problems facing the Empire, and she replies by calling him depressing. It’s worth noting that there were three major famines in India under her reign. At one point, she’s disappointed that he lied (or downplayed) about the Muslim involvement in the 1857 mutiny, initially thinking it was mostly Hindus (which, among other things, was caused by rifle cartridges for Indian soldiers being greased with cow and pig fat, offending both religions). She shows more concern over him lying about that than the fact that there was a revolt happening over the country she happily claims to be the Empress of in the first place. And Abdul never bringing up these larger events and problems happening in his country to her is odd, as if we’re mostly pretending as if everything is just fine.
Victoria & Abdul tries to be about the bonds that can come to fruition despite different perspectives, but what it ends up being is a film about a lonely, rich, monarch who finds personal amusement and enrichment out of an exotic and happily obedient servant who would apparently prioritize her needs over his own family. Again, there might be more to this in the real story, and the film even starts with the phrase “Based on a true story…mostly,” but the manner in which the film presents all this is deeply troubling to me. It only emphasizes the need for more different voices to be out there to tell stories like this. It’s very obvious that this was a story told by people who simply aren’t capable, or at the very least weren’t fully prepared, of telling a story that relies on cross-cultural understanding without resorting to basic, tired clichés. Even with a cast that’s as charming and renowned as this can’t do much to scrub the icky racial politics and problematic messaging away from this otherwise basic and unassuming period dramedy. I left the theater feeling cold, tired, annoyed, frustrated, baffled, and…well, like more of an outsider. I’m all for seeing more Indian talent on screen, but this feels like something that maybe would’ve felt outdated even if it came out alongside Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.
The worst offense, though, might be the lack of payoff for the mango gag. I mean, come on, guys. You did the set up by introducing the concept of the mango to the Queen, you gave us the reminder when the overripe mango was brought over and immediately taken away, but then there’s no payoff with her finally getting to eat a mango! That’s Screenwriting 101, folks!