Rummaging through the files of history to find a useful analogue for today’s propaganda wars is an old sport in the movie business. In 1940, for instance, British producer Alexander Korda, who was in New York reporting to the British spy agency MI5 about anti-war and pro-German sentiment in the U.S., put Laurence Olivier in Admiral Nelson’s epaulettes for That Hamilton Woman, in which the Napoleonic menace to Britain and to Europe was meant to evoke the spreading evil of Nazism. Winston Churchill declared it his favorite film.
Thirty years later, as the Vietnam War appeared to be going badly but Hollywood was reluctant to say so directly, M*A*S*H appeared in theaters, disguising its satire of the then-current Asian conflict by pretending it was targeting the previous generation’s Korean War.
Today’s filmmakers, eager to present a plea for tolerance across ethnicities, cultures, races, and religions, have found an unlikely new spokeswoman for the cause: Queen Victoria. Points must be awarded for audacity to Victoria & Abdul, in which the octogenarian empress (Judi Dench) takes on the spirit of a college diversity coordinator after 1887 thanks to her unlikely friendship with a dashing young Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who, though presented to her by courtiers as one of “the Hindus,” turns out to be a Muslim. There’s a scene where we meet Abdul’s wife, fully covered by a burka and veil. Victoria, rebuffing the advisers who find this a bit disturbing (as indeed it was, and is), tells them — really, us — how splendid and beautiful she looks.
There turns out to be more than a grain of truth to this story, directed by Stephen Frears (who also made The Queen with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II). Abdul had a job in a prison in Agra when he and another man were almost randomly summoned to England to stand in for all imperial subjects in presenting a ceremonial coin to the monarch, after which the two were expected to get right back on the boat. Instead, the queen took a liking to Abdul, asking him about customs back in India, which she had never visited, and encouraged him to teach her Urdu. The two became so close that she began calling him her “Munshi,” or spiritual teacher, as the rest of the royal household stewed in disbelief.
The entire staff of Buckingham Palace, presented without exception as racist and xenophobic, threatened to resign en masse, very much in agreement with “Bertie,” the then Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII (Eddie Izzard), who couldn’t stand Abdul. He schemed to find a way to get rid of the interloper and even threatened to have the queen declared mentally incapacitated, in tandem with the royal doctor.
Victoria & Abdul is a sort of sequel to 1997’s Mrs. Brown, in which Dench played Victoria in the 1860s, shortly after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, when she found some solace in her friendship with a Scottish servant named John Brown (Billy Connolly), with whom it was rumored she had an affair. (Brown died in 1883.) She has great fun reprising the role here, playing the queen as a bored old wretch who hates to get out of bed and rushes through state dinners so quickly that guests don’t have the chance to finish their soup before the bowls are ordered taken away. For all she commands, the poor woman has never had a curry in her life. Abdul, though, is the human equivalent of a bright burst of spice in her otherwise bland daily diet of official papers and monotonous pomp.
Its brand of jokey, gentle, well-meaning multiculturalism simply isn’t polemical or angry enough for today’s leftist film critics.
Like a Bill Clinton–style Democrat, though, a film such as this one that would have been a huge success in the 1990s today simply reminds us that the species to which it belongs is vanishing. Its brand of jokey, gentle, well-meaning multiculturalism simply isn’t polemical or angry enough for today’s leftist film critics, without whose eager support a British costume drama is doomed to failure. Not only does the film let Victoria off the hook for imperial plunder and subjugation, it practically positions her as a democrat fighting to break down class and ethnic barriers. The critics are not having any of that. “Dubiously, it seems intent on casting Queen Victoria, the bastion of empire, as some progressive outrider, railing against white racists,” said The Guardian’s reviewer, expressing sentiments found in many other reviews. If “Frears doesn’t go so far as to paint her as Gandhi and Nehru come early, that may only be because the historians broke in and held a gun to his head.”
Non-leftists will have a different reaction to the film. Is it really, as intended, an astute reflection on 2017, a well-earned poke in the eye to the hysterical racists of today whom Bertie represents? Tied up in that question are others. Are Muslims like the mild-mannered, gracious, subservient Abdul really a point of contention today? And is the tension relating to Muslims in our time really to be blamed solely on the hostility of ignorant, racist, xenophobic Westerners?