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Movie review: 'Victoria & Abdul' is more than quirky comedy

Victoria & Abdul; 111 min; Rated PG-13

My first impression of “Victoria & Abdul” was of a film that seemed shallow, with very little going on other than the telling of a story about an English monarch who for some 50 years exercised unequivocal power as the titular head of Britain’s vast empire and her jarring relationship with an Indian man.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) ruled supreme for over half a century, her colonial reach including India. And it is from India that two men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adzel Akhtar) are chosen to journey to England to present to her majesty a commemorative coin from her Indian subjects as part of her golden jubilee.

The year is 1887. Victoria is now an elderly woman grown weary with life and feeling a sense of isolation having lost her much-loved husband, Albert, and two of her nine children.

And so the two Indians arrive and are immediately schooled by the palace staff in the proper way to approach her royal highness with their coin. They’re told to avoid eye contact no matter the circumstances. Of course, Abdul ignores his instructions and it is when he gazes at Victoria and she at him that there is a connection, one that is unexpected and one that surprises all in the royal household.

Suddenly, the queen is rejuvenated, her interest in life renewed, and she soon wishes only to bask in the company of Abdul. She wants to know all about his language, his culture and his family. And she wishes to learn Urdu.

As well, Abdul is transformed from being a mere clerk in India to Victoria’s “Munshi,” meaning teacher and guide, a designation that is unsettling not only to the royal household, but most especially to her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales and the heir to the throne. Undaunted, Victoria perseveres.

When thinking about the narrative, it gradually becomes clear that director Stephen Frears was not simply making a light comedy about the silly reactions by family and staff to the queen’s attachment to this strange man who is, from the point of view of her family, now fastened to the royal ship of state like a barnacle. But there's something more in play in this film.

“Victoria & Abdul” is a character study of a woman who is not only profoundly lonely, but also free of the entrenched, colonial attitudes of all those who comprise the royal household, to include England’s prime minister, Lord Salisbury (Michael Gabon). As a group, led by Bertie, they rebel, their hostility toward both Abdul and Mohammed palpable. They make no effort to know them; rather, they simply reject both outright based on prejudices that were rooted in the colonial posture of the Brits throughout their empire.

The English, with stunning arrogance, regarded themselves as the harbingers of civilization and therefore superior to those who lived in those countries which had been colonized. As a rule, their subjects, so to speak, were brown and were judged as inferior solely because of the color of their skin.

Victoria harbored no such assumptions and saw in Abdul another individual who, while different in background and customs and color, was at the very least her equal. When Bertie confronts his mother, he insists that Abdul is nothing more than an opportunist. The queen, taking offense, responds, asking, “How is that any different from the rest of you?”

Of course, Bertie and household are blind to their own prejudices, reacting to Abdul absent any reflection or much insight. Hence, below the royal patina, or story-lite, this is a film about racism, a wounding response to a man who could have enriched all of their lives but is instead viewed as a poseur to be discarded.

These are truths that over a 100 years later still haunt the world. America clearly is no exception.

What Frears has done is create a movie that is disguised as a quirky, situational comedy that is actually so much more.

While it is, of course, a wonderful vehicle for the talent of Dench, who in every way inhabits Victoria, it also asks the audience to look just a bit further and find what Frears was really about.