'Victoria and Abdul': The Queen and I

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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Remember the first time you heard someone opine that "The rich get richer and the poor get more children?" You looked up from your playpen and thought, "Gee, that's not a very good starting point. Guess I'll have to grow up to be either rich or a social reformer, whatever that is?"
 
Thus, faced with that cynical, socioeconomic fact practically since birth, and having fought the good fight for one side or the other throughout a good portion of your life, a little ameliorative drama to ease the class warfare battle scars is always welcome. "Victoria and Abdul" provides it.
 
In this sweet, nicely filmed tale based on the actual relationship England's Queen Victoria had late in life with her Muslim Indian servant, Abdul Karim, oodles of feel-good charm temporarily anoint an egalitarian salve to a sense of fairness long abraded by social Darwinism. At perennial odds with whether humankind is inherently good or evil, our better instincts seek proof of the former, even if just the glimmer of it is evidenced by a single example. Here, director Stephen Frears, working from an adaptation of Shrabani Basu's book by Lee Hall, makes nice.
 
But of course, while we are willing to accept kindness wherever we may find it, our skepticism tells us that, for all the reasons that we Homo sapiens are what we are, this goodwill will be contested. All the queen's courtiers and her family are abashed. And anyway, you didn't expect that Her Highness, moved by the comradery and helpful counsel of her lowborn servant, would decide, "Hey, y'know what? I grant India its independence." You don't have to be a queen to know that you don't come to ruling most of the world by giving stuff away.
 
This isn't to take anything away from the old gal. While granted, it's not difficult to be magnanimous in a controlled environment, there is every evidence that a true friendship developed between the monarch and the former prison clerk initially chosen, because of his height, to deliver a coin commemorating her golden jubilee. Still, it is the unlikeliness of it that makes it so endearing, much like the contradicting wonder we enjoy when we hear that a mama tiger decides to nurse a foundling lamb.
 
Judi Dench, once again playing the regent so long-reigning that they named an era after her, and Ali Fazal as the favored one, engage in a repartee that, while familiar in its wishful trope, is nonetheless engaging courtesy of solid acting. There's no discounting the appeal of opposites surprising each other with thoughts each has never before considered, as well as finding solace and edification in their commonality. Back and forth it goes, the constant reaffirmation of their vast separation contended by the requisite reminder that we are, after all, brothers under the skin.
 
Make of it what you will, this yin and yang of Marxian reality. But, save for little details about their evolving friendship and attempts by the royal inner circle to terminate it, the plot gets no thicker. Frears has the Queen allude to a thing or two about the politics of empire, but there's nothing terribly profound in what she notes, and the screenplay doesn't posit much about a world that's beginning to dabble, at least in the West, with representative forms of government.
 
Hence the film misses the opportunity to wax compellingly about a society rumbling full-throttle with technical advancement, engaged in an industrial revolution that's creating both billionaire robber barons and an emerging middle class hoping to one day be robber barons. Director Frears might have realized more than just his polite, pictorial version of the song, "Getting to Know You," by infusing the scenario with a wider array of folks from different classes, as was seen in Miloš Forman's epochal "Ragtime" (1981), set in America just a snippet in time later.
 
The lure is a cliché. It pleases our inner angels when people who purportedly have nothing in common wind up more willing to share their innermost secrets with each other than with those from their own social strata. It helps that the subject is, after all, Her Majesty. But a story about a relationship between, let us say, an old hermit lady living in an Appalachian holler and a male novice social worker sent from the Big City to "save" her, though proffering an equal dichotomy, would fail if it didn't contain some epiphanies much more profound than are realized here.
 
All this said, inspiration is where you find it. Current events caution us that if we are to survive what is hopefully just a temporary blip in the tenor of our constitutional democracy, we must beat our foe to the pass and work to heal divisions that those powers that be aggressively try to widen. As such, I plan this week to seek out the Abdul to my Victoria and listen very hard.
 
"Victoria and Abdul," rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Stephen Frears and stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Tim Pigott-Smith. Running time: 111 minutes

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