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Victoria and Abdul

Here’s a strange little surprise. I had pegged this one as a disposable little trifle, but it’s been hanging around my local multiplex for a shocking amount of time. Nearly a month after release, and it’s shown more staying power than several other releases in the past few weeks. Could it be that I had underestimated this picture and it was genuinely better than it looked?

NOPE.

Victoria and Abdul is loosely based on the real-life story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, respectively played by Dame Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. At the time of our story, it’s the late nineteenth century and England has been in control of India for about twenty years. Through some happy accident, Abdul is selected for a trip to England (alongside Mohammed, another random Indian man, played by Adeel Akhtar) so he can be a set piece for some idiotic ceremony.

In short order — through a combination of accidents and dumb luck — Abdul endears himself to the queen. She takes him in as her personal confidante, such that he becomes her advisor on Indian culture, language, history, and so on. This is invaluable, as the queen should certainly know something about the subcontinent she’s empress of, even if she’ll never actually go there.

What’s more, Abdul provides a fresh bit of novelty to the queen, who’s surrounded in her gilded cage by so many of the same boring white aristocrats sucking up to her. And of course said aristocrats hate Abdul because he’s a low-born foreigner who’s beating the toadies at their own game…

…Oh. Sorry, folks — For a minute there, I ran out of fucks to give.

Just under two hours long, and this movie felt like an eternity. Yes, this is a culture clash movie in which everyone is shocked at Abdul’s presence and his actions, infuriated by the queen’s stubborn insistence that he be respected as a human being. That’s all well and good, but watching it repeated without variation got old fast, especially when we’ve seen some version of this in so many movies before.

What makes this even more unforgivable is that this movie takes place in the highest echelons of Britain’s government. Are we really supposed to believe that there was nothing else going on at the time? No other events of world-shaking importance that this might affect? The stakes to this movie feel pitifully small, especially since the characters are all so broad and their conflicts are all so petty.

Which brings me to a fundamental problem with this plot: Our protagonist is the bloody Queen of England. No matter how many times she talks about being trapped in her position of inscrutable power, she still holds a position of inscrutable power! I don’t care how many aristocrats she pisses off or how many social standards she’s breaking, she’s the motherfucking queen — played by Dame Judi Dench, remember — and there’s nobody to stop her from doing as she damn well pleases.

At least a hundred times in this picture, Queen Victoria is told “You can’t do that!” and she does it anyway. There’s no counterargument and no repercussions, because there can’t be. After the fifth time this happens, all dramatic tension is drained from the whole story. After the five-hundreth time this happens, Oh my God, why is this movie still going on?!

As for Abdul, he’s sadly no better. He’s only ever a meek little servant who happily takes what he’s given, glad to serve at the pleasure of the queen. He never makes any independent decisions, never takes any independent actions, and never speaks on his own behalf during the umpteen billion times someone’s begging the queen to send him packing. From start to finish, everything simply happens to him, and he takes it all without complaint. This is the perfect recipe for a boring protagonist.

The supporting cast includes such talents as Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith, and others who embarrass themselves as toadying barnacles too cowardly and impotent to pose any significant threat. Adeel Akhtar is a useless one-note comic relief who almost — ALMOST — redeems his involvement in his final scene. The only memorable performance in this whole picture is that of Judi Dench, but of course you already know that she could knock this role out of the park in her sleep. (And probably has, come to think of it.)

So is there anything of value here? Well, the cast is undeniably talented and I suppose there’s some value in watching their continuous struggle to make something out of nothing. The visuals are also quite good, with particular kudos due to the costume design. But most of all, I appreciate the implication that Abdul may have brought attention to important matters that may otherwise have been considered beneath the queen’s attention. This isn’t a bad story, just a badly told one.

Victoria and Abdul was a chore to sit through. There’s no dramatic tension, the comedy is limp, the characters are all thin, and I couldn’t possibly have cared less about these supposedly global stakes. I hated every second with these stuck-up British stereotypes as our antagonists, and watching their pompous cowardly bullshit never got any less boring or annoying. And it certainly didn’t help that one of our protagonists was pitifully inert while the other was ridiculously overpowered.

The performance by Dame Judi Dench is solid, but she’s done just as well in so many far better movies. Hell, she worked under this same director in Philomena, and that one was superior in every way. Definitely not recommended.

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