The Banquet of Infinity

Victoria & Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams, Tim Piggott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, Paul Higgins

The unlikely friendship of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a Muslim clerk from Agra who is sent to England from Colonial India to present a special coin to her majesty is the subject of a sumptuous and shrewdly observed film by veteran director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, Philomena).

Victoria and Abdul has to be viewed in conjunction with the 1997 John Madden film Mrs Brown also starring Oscar winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) as the grand old queen which in that film follows her widow like infatuation with the Scottish highlander John Brown played by Billy Connolly.

The British director of Florence Foster Jenkins makes a clever narrative choice in telling the story from Abdul’s perspective, as he goes on a fascinating journey into the heart of the English court with its strange pomposity and royal etiquette.

Abdul is expertly played by Indian actor Ali Fazal (Fast and Furious 7), who is handsome, devoted and downright smitten with this cantankerous monarch who sees him as a beautiful embodiment of all that is exotic about the vast subcontinent that was 19th century colonial India, a country that ironically Queen Victoria was never allowed to visit for fear of being assassinated.

Victoria, much to the horror of her conservative retinue of court staff and advisors, takes a shine to the bold and outspoken Abdul and requests that he become her munchee, her teacher on all things Indian from delicacies like mangoes to religious and cultural practices. A pertinent request considering that at the time, 19th century India was ruled by England when its rapid colonial expansion globally allowed Queen Victoria to bizarrely assume the title of Empress of India even though she had never set foot on the distant sub-continent.

As the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim blossoms at first comically and later as a form of emotional attachment, it becomes the source of anticipated ridicule from her own son Bertie, the Prince of Wales played with suitable arrogance by Eddie Izzard as well as the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wonderfully played by Michael Gambon (Brideshead Revisited).

In one of the best lines of the film Lord Salisbury mentions to Queen Victoria at a gorgeous state banquet that the British Empire has annexed Zululand to which the monarch replies whatever for?

In the twilight of her exceptionally long reign and as the 19th century draws to a close, Victoria realizes that her unconventional friendship with Abdul is her last jaunt at joviality even elevating him to a senior adviser and taking him on a trip to Florence, Italy where they are both fortunate enough to meet Puccini played with panache by character actor Simon Callow (A Room with a View, Maurice).

The cross cultural appeal of Victoria and Abdul should keep international audiences interested in this previously unknown friendship between an aging British monarch and a young, handsome Indian clerk, whose precarious protection at court was only valid while the Queen remained alive.

The shocking end sequence of Victoria and Abdul is a cruel reminder of how colonialism always excluded the other even when they were desperately trying to appease their colonizer.

As a brilliantly observed piece of largely ignored historical fact which only came to light through the discovery of Abdul’s journals in 2010, Victoria and Abdul is a beautiful period film, held together by two magnificently nuanced performances by both Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, both whom deserve Oscar nominations.

Victoria and Abdul gets a film rating of 8 out of 10 and will be enjoyed by audiences that cherished director Gurinder Chadha’s equally impressive Anglo-Indian drama The Viceroy’s House set during the partition of India, half a century in later.

 

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