The Monarch and the Munshi: Review of Victoria and Abdul

Clare Walker Gore is a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, having completed her PhD at Selwyn College, Cambridge in 2015. She mainly researches disability in the Victorian novel, and when she isn’t working on her first book, she is mostly to be found knitting and novel-reading. You can find her Academia.edu page here and her twitter profile here.

Fittingly enough for a film that is all about the beginning of the end, the scene that we might expect to come at the end of Victoria and Abdul takes place very near the beginning. Optimistic young Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) has been plucked from his rather unexciting life as a clerk at a prison in Agra, and ordered to sail to England to play a starring role in what appears to be an entirely pointless ceremony at Windsor Castle, in which Queen Victoria will be presented with a Mughal coin as part of the celebrations for her Golden Jubilee. As his less than impressed companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) repeatedly points out, it is a ridiculously long journey to make to present the Queen with something she almost certainly will not want. Starry-eyed at the prospect of this unlooked-for adventure, Abdul cares nothing for its basic absurdity, while for Mohammed, the ceremony sums up just about everything he dislikes about his pompous, dictatorial colonial superiors. Within minutes of their arrival, they are being marshalled into the banqueting hall for their moment of glory, poor Mohammed having to hold his empty hands before him in a mime of cushion-carrying, since there is in fact only one cushion, which is (naturally) being clutched by a gleeful Abdul. When the great moment arises, it is exactly as Mohammed predicted it would be: the greedy Queen can barely bring herself to look up from her profiteroles long enough to glance at the coin, and when she does, registers only astonishment that anyone should have bothered to disturb her dinner for such a trifle. Five minutes in, and the adventure for which Abdul held out such high hopes is already over.

And then, as he backs away from Her Majesty after this bitterly disappointing anti-climax, having nothing much to lose, he defies his orders (‘Eyes down!’) and takes a good long look at her face. Serendipitously, she looks up at the same moment, and meets his eye. The rest, as they say, is history – or rather, it is the sort of anomalous, curious episode that tends to get left out of history, but provides perfect material for a sideways look at an otherwise familiar chapter of the past. As Abdul and Victoria develop what the film’s strapline calls ‘History’s Most Unlikely Friendship’, the contradictions of British attitudes to Empire, class, monarchy and much else besides are drawn out in an enjoyable comedy of manners that we know is running out of time, as the ageing Queen draws ever nearer to what Abdul comfortingly calls ‘the great Banqueting Hall in the sky’.

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The relationship may have been ‘Unlikely’, but the same cannot be said of the director’s choice of material, or his choice of leading lady. Judi Dench put in an award-winning performance as an ageing Queen Victoria finding an unlikely romantic friendship with one of her servants in Mrs Brown (1997), while the director Stephen Frears won a BAFTA for his 2006 film The Queen. Perhaps even more relevant is his more recent biopic Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), which told the story of a hugely wealthy, impossibly spoiled and deeply untalented socialite who set out to realise her dream of becoming an opera singer. Like Victoria and Abdul, a plot summary suggests that it ought to have been a study in self-delusion and sycophancy, but in Frears’ hands, it became instead a wryly tender story about the lies we tell ourselves and the people we love. We were encouraged to love Florence as much as we were invited to laugh at her, and to sympathise with the paid companion who loves her too, for all the lies he tells her. I can quite understand that some viewers might have found Florence Foster Jenkins sentimental rather than touching – and for them, Victoria and Abdul is likely to be similarly unsatisfying. It portrays a Queen who is ignorant, greedy, selfish and spoiled, knowing almost nothing of the lives of her subjects and, while apparently believing her own claim to wish for ‘an ordinary life’, entirely used to getting her own way – and it invites us to view her with the same permissive, indulgent affection as does Abdul.

In the event, this proves all too easy, because Dench plays the part brilliantly, equally convincing in her moments of painful vulnerability, stately hauteur and incongruously coy flirtation. The scene in which she sings ‘I’m little Buttercup’ before an appalled Puccini, her horrified courtiers, and a delighted Abdul is one of the most toe-curlingly embarrassing and yet moving things I’ve seen in a long time. She may be the Queen, but she’s also just an eighty-year-old woman, standing in front of a handsome young man, asking him to – well, what? She is mortified immediately afterwards to find out that Abdul is married, but as he asks her, what difference could it have made? Why on earth is she surprised that he has failed to tell her this, when their whole relationship is built on his telling her exactly what she wants to hear? Her deludedness is culpable, funny, and pathetic at the same time. Dench lets us see that Victoria knows that Abdul is paid to make her smile, and yet she wants so much to believe that he does it because he wants to, that she half-succeeds in making it true, as Abdul finds himself increasingly unable to stay detached.

The ambiguity that Fazal brings to the part of Abdul perfectly complements the richness of Dench’s performance. It is clear from the beginning that he is an opportunist, but at the same time we suspect that he half-believes the fibs he tells, and that his genius for make-believe largely springs from a good-natured desire to tell people what they want to hear, especially if it happens to serve his interests as well. He doesn’t share his older and more serious-minded friend Mohammed’s hatred of the British Empire – yet it is not at all clear that he believes the things he tells Victoria about what a fine Queen she is, or how much her subjects love her. He tells the Queen what she wants to hear about India, exploiting her total ignorance about the country she presumes to rule by presenting himself as a respected Islamic scholar rather than an ordinary clerk; an aristocrat rather than a tradesman’s son. Soon, he is being showered with gifts and honours, raised from servant to courtier and from teacher to ‘Munshi’, their lessons in Urdu (which none of the courtiers can distinguish from Hindi) elevated to the status of ‘instruction in Indian languages and culture’. But while he thorougly enjoys the benefits of the Queen’s extraordinary patronage, we can see that he only half believes any of his own patter. He doesn’t kiss her feet because he is overwhelmed with joy at meeting his monarch; he does it, as he tells her outraged secretary with a shrug, because he thought it would cheer her up. And cheering up the Queen, as we soon see, has rich rewards.

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Photo: Peter Mountain/Focus Features

Only gradually, as Victoria responds with such pathetic eagerness and delighted surprise to his professions of affection, do we see that he really is growing fond of her, and wants to stay in her service out of loyalty rather than self interest. Sometimes, the balance tips, and the film slides towards sentimentality, but for the most part Abdul remains an interesting character, a case-study in how one particular individual pressed into colonial service might cope with the oppressiveness and dishonesty of the British Raj. For Mohammed, it’s all about remembering who the enemy is; for Abdul, it’s about imagining away what is too painful to face. Although Frears largely turns the racism and snobbery of Victoria’s courtiers to comic effect, using their hatefulness to heighten our enjoyment of Abdul’s success in running rings around them, there are moments when he dwells on the ugliness of their attitudes, particularly in the scenes involving Muhammed.

While Abdul revels in his role as Munshi, Mohammed gradually succumbs to tuberculosis, coughing up blood in his freezing attic room. The collapse in Mohammed’s health is made to mirror what he suffers in watching his erstwhile friend degrade himself, in his view, by prolonging their stay among people who despise them, delighting the Queen by presenting her with a fundamentally false version of India in a performance which only extends their exile from the real India, to which Mohammed longs to return. If there is something rather indulgent in the lengthy, straight-to-camera monologue which Frears gives Victoria about what it is really like to be Queen, I thought it was to some extent at least balanced by the monolgue Mohammed gets to deliver to the Queen’s secretary and eldest son, when they come to him to his room to propose he earn his return ticket to India by dishing the dirt on Abdul’s former life and precipitating his fall from grace. Mohammed tells them exactly what they can do with their grubby offer, and what he thinks of their precious Empire, for good measure.

When Mohammed shows his true face – nobody’s smiling servant – the crown prince is made to show his. We have so far seen Bertieas a whining, entitled man-child, his racist outbursts comic in their impotence. Now we see him as a future ruler, bloodshot-eyed, his bloated face contorted with rage as he tells Mohammed that he’ll see to it that he dies in this place. This is the face of Empire that is otherwise hidden in this comic view of the late-Victorian court: spiteful, bigoted, culpably ignorant and finally interested only in power. As his star rises and Victoria’s sets, the film largely abandons its comic mode. Mohammed does indeed die in England, as the future king viciously promised; standing beside his grave, Abdul seems for the first time to lose his hitherto inexhaustible capacity for finding the silver lining. He looks genuinely desolate, as if the scales are falling from his eyes. Yet he still refuses Victoria’s offer to let him return to India – whether because it is too late to admit to himself that his calculations have been mistaken, or because he has simply grown too fond of the Queen (as he claims), we cannot tell. Either way, he pays the price for his decision. After the somewhat mawkish death scene is over, the circling vultures plunge: Abdul loses everything, his precious papers burnt, his grace and favour house requisitioned, his dignity left in tatters by the gloating King.

The last scene of the film, which sees the bereaved Abdul back in India, eating his lunch beside a statue of the Queen, makes for a troubling finale. For me, it was of a piece with the film’s overall themes of self-delusion and saving lies, suggesting that Abdul continues to cling to a romanticised version of his dealings with the Royal family because the truth is too painful to face. Yet there is a risk, surely, that we might see Abdul merely as subservient, or find his loyalty to those who have so mistreated him touching rather than tragic. At a time when we have a foreign secretary capable of reciting ‘The Road to Mandalay’ on an official visit to a Buddhist temple in Myanmar,[1] and surveys suggest that a minority of British people see Britian’s imperialist past as shameful,[2] there is a clear need for a hard-hitting film which forces viewers to face up to the violent reality of the Raj. This is not that film. To be fair, it never claims to be. Victoria and Abdul wears its comic colours on its sleeve, and as a wry study in the absurdities of the insular Victorian court, it succeeds on its own terms. And if Dench’s stellar performance makes it difficult not to sympathise perhaps a little too much with the self-pitying Queen, the film’s depiction of her bigoted courtiers, loathsome prime minister and wholly repugnant heir apparent should surely give apologists for the Empire pause for thought. That its capacity to do so seems uncertain is an indictment, I think, of our wider political culture more than of the film itself.

 

Works Cited:

[1] ‘Boris Johnson Caught on Camera Reciting Kipling in Myanmar Temple’, The Guardian, 30 September 2017

[2] ‘British people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire, poll finds’, The Independent, 19 January 2016

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