Oscar Week Film Review: Victoria and Abdul

Not even Judi Dench can save this irresponsible look at the British colonial legacy, Victoria and Abdul nevertheless takes two Oscar nominations into the ceremony.

“It is imperative that the royal colon receives a little roughage”

AKA The Other V&A. You can see the rationale behind Victoria and Abdul, allowing Dame Judi Dench to reprise her much-loved role from Mrs Brown with another 20 years under her belt. And directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Lee Hall, hopes were reasonably high.

What results though, is a film that indulges in an irresponsible kind of historical revisionism, a refusal to engage with and interrogate the reality of British colonial rule. Hall’s version of Victoria is allowed to be coyly ignorant of the looting of Indian treasure, a champion of diversity too in an improbable twist.

This comes about through the depiction of the relationship between the monarch, late in her reign, and an Indian Muslim servant, presented with a cheeky insouciance by Ali Fazal. It is initially engaging but as Abdul’s paper-thin characterisation is revealed, the film’s hollowness becomes indubitable.  

Which feels a shame given the talent as its disposal. Dench is peerless in imbuing this Victoria with all the weary weight of lonely old age. And the courtiers around her, who get landed with the correct level of imperial racism, are a treasure trove of delights – Olivia Williams, Paul Higgins, Fenella Woolgar, Robin Soans.

The Oscar nods for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling (Daniel Phillips and Loulia Sheppard) and Best Achievement in Costume Design (Consolata Boyle) possibly owe more to the US love of ye olde British history, though their work is strong. And it is bittersweetly nice to be able to see Tim Pigott-Smith  once more. But British film-making really needs to get better at telling its history.

Photograph: Peter Mountain/Focus Features

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