Jane Eyre, living now in NYC courtesy of the novel Jane Eyre Gets Real, was surprised recently when she saw a coming attraction for Victoria and Abdul. The movie, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, has just opened in New York. It tells the true story of the aging queen and how she makes an Indian butler her Muslim adviser. Directed by Stephen Frears, of Philomena fame, the film has a stellar cast and lavish production values. Normally it would be right up Jane’s alley–except it all seems to be suspiciously like the 1997 movie Mrs. Brown.
Mrs. Brown also starred Judi Dench as Queen Victoria who, extremely saddened by the death of Prince Albert, emerges from depression with the help of her Scottish servant (played by Billy Connolly). Both films revolve around the premise of a melancholy old queen, draped in black and out of touch, who is brought back to life with the aid of a “foreign” man of lowly social stature. As reward, said man is elevated to high rank and given the queen’s royal devotion. In Mrs. Brown, Billy the gillie serves Victoria whisky, encourages her to ride out in rough temperatures and to interact with peasants. In Victoria and Abdul, Abdul endeavors to present the Queen with a perfect mango: symbol of her Eastern kingdoms, too far away for her to visit yet glowing with refracted exoticism. Same difference.
Victoria and Abdul, Jane imagines, is a treat as predictable and delicious as Victoria sponge cake. She’s sure it will be easy to watch, and will offer what American audiences seem to crave: the ability to savor the beauty of empire while remaining smug in their liberal beliefs. After all, even the prim and proper queen comes to love her Indian servant, “Munshi”, valuing him over prime minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and her other po-faced courtiers. Meaning, in theory, that the film is supporting the virtues of the “humble.” In fact, apart from being a showcase for Dench’s amazing talent, Jane fears it’s just another opportunity to feature gleaming silks in jeweled colors, plummy accents, and endless green lawns beneath a watery English sun. Nothing wrong with that; just be honest about what exactly Victoria and Abdul is celebrating.