In 2017, the funding environment for films has become tumultuous and uncertain. Markets are changing, traditional revenue streams are closing off, and no one really knows what to do. One thing that remains a sure-fire hit is nostalgic films that romanticise violent empires and forge lionised heroes from their strange, unsympathetic, and uncharismatic leaders. In a version of capitalism that stresses that leadership and success must be earned with hard work and innovation, it is perhaps a refreshing change to return to the veneration of largely inbred European royals as they lament the difficult positions their royal heritage has bequeathed upon them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the widely popular UK hit Victoria & Abdul, which has grossed around $25 Million US dollars worldwide since its release. The film follows the budding friendship between elderly Queen Victoria and her manservant-come-guru Abdul Karim, a friendship which the film seems to admit was much more about sticking it to the monarch’s hated children than a genuine cultural interest.
Judi Dench, who plays Victoria, should definitely be praised for her performance which transforms the aging empress, who wholeheartedly endorsed the expansion of the British empire and the dispossession of indigenous land around the globe, into a sympathetic figure. Victoria’s character here is like a baby boomer version of Rick Sanchez or Walter White — characters whose quirky, endearing flaws and snappy put-downs obscure fans from seeing their real status as a villain. However, unlike the creators of Breaking Bad and Rick and Morty, it seems pretty clear that the film’s director, Stephen Frears, genuinely intended to paint Victoria as some kind of hero.
Despite an impressive performance by Dench, Victoria’s fascination with a heavily orientalised version of Southern Asian culture has all the persuasiveness of a One Nation diehard who claims they aren’t racist because they love butter chicken. In fact, it seems that is really what the film’s entire premise boils down to — that the Queen of the largest empire in the world at its peak actually isn’t racist because she has a brown friend.
But Victoria & Abdul’s tone deaf attitude to history isn’t what makes it such a failure, instead it’s the paradoxical task of being both heartwarming and a historically true film about empire, told from a white perspective. You can’t really do both.
Firstly, Abdul’s character is largely unexplored throughout the entire film, which is strange, considering the story of an Indian jail clerk who becomes swept up in the largest empire in world history would generate some new found discoveries or insights. But it doesn’t. He begins the film loving the British empire, and at the end of the film, although it has taken all of his achievements away from him, he still loves it. He perfectly fills the one dimensional “eastern mystical healer” archetype, and despite being a titular character, he doesn’t really change or develop throughout the entire film.
For you to actually enjoy the film, you have to sympathise with its real protagonist, Victoria, which even for racially insensitive baby boomers, is a pretty hard task. This means at the lowest point in the film, we have to feel a connection with her sense of misguided betrayal when her despised son Berty reminds her of the 1857 revolt in India where several hundred Britons were killed. He pieces together for her that because Abdul is a muslim, he must have some kind of camaraderie with the largely muslim mutineers. It’s bad enough that the film never mentions the thousands of Indians who were massacred in that conflict by British forces, but we never are really allowed to sympathise with Abdul, who is persecuted because of a conflict that happened before he was born.
In the end we are given all the emotional depth of an old aristocrat suffering a 19th century flavor of Islamophobia, and none of the emotional depth of the most interesting character in the film. It’s odd that a film that imagines so much history can’t elicit complex emotionality in what should have been its leading character.
If films about empire are going to be made from a white perspective, they need to seriously challenge their protagonists instead of creating light entertainment out of the idea that their actions were honourable or defensible.