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I’m Fascinated but Extremely Cautious About Victoria & Abdul

Based on Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant and written by Billy Eliot‘s Lee Hall, the film looks like a gorgeous period piece about Queen Victoria’s latter life.

Here is the official synopsis:

“The extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Academy Award winner Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.”

From the trailer, the film appears to be a moving portrait of Victoria, who went into deep mourning after the death of Prince Albert and was again devastated by the death of her Scottish ghillie John Brown. Dench portrayed the queen in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, and her performance looks similarly formidable here. Yet while Karim shares the title with the iconic queen, he appears to play much more of a supporting role from what we see in the trailer.

I am fascinated with this history and extremely cautious about this film’s approach to it. Karim’s relationship with Queen Victoria was a truly extraordinary one. First entering England as an Indian servant, Karim developed a friendship with the queen where they taught each other Hindustani and English, shared Indian food, and eventually became an important part of her household. At the same time, the racial barriers were immense and he was constantly met with hatred and suspicion.

Director Stephen Frears of The Queen, Philomena, and Mrs. Henderson Presents is fantastic at providing deep, intimate portraits of characters like Victoria, but I sincerely hope that Karim has a much bigger and more complex role than the trailer suggests. Marketing can be tricky, and I’m crossing my fingers that it might just be because Dench is a bigger and more familiar star for many or because they don’t want to give too much away.

Their unlikely relationship was one full of respect, curiosity, and true affection, and shouldn’t be subject to the “magical brown man” trope whose defining characteristic is transforming the queen’s life and teaching her to live again. Karim is not a plot device—he was a real man whose internal life during his time in England was no doubt full of a wide spectrum of emotions.

It is somewhat charming when Karim explains to the queen what a mango is, but the scene where she demands for one to be sent as she is the Empress of India and dismisses the famines occurring in that time should remind us there is a backdrop of colonial violence through the entire film. The queen herself also had limited powers when it came to what she could do for Karim (he was never able to achieve knighthood, for instance). After her death, he was forced to the back in the line of mourners, had all his letters and connections to her confiscated and burnt, and was ordered to leave England. I wonder if we’ll be seeing this side of the story.

His relationship with the queen and the country is a story that warrants a meaningful and thoughtful look, and I’m glad that it’s getting attention through this film. I only hope that it does him justice. What did you think about the trailer?

(Image: Focus Features)

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