There’s a programme over here, on Channel 4, called the Last Leg that came out of the Paralympics in 2012. Hosted by an Ozzie it has two of its three presenters who have significant disabilities. They run this live twitter feed, whereby the audience can ask ‘is it ok to say/ask…’ The point being to break liberal sensitivities and self imposed taboos on raising questions in case they might offend.
I caught myself belly laughing at an early scene in the new Victoria biopic – with Judy Dench as the 80 year old queen – when this was brought to mind. You see, the joke was a means of showing the absurdity of some of the racism suffered by the Abdul of the film’s title. The patrician and patronising royal aides were made to look foolish as the Queen showed, first her interest in this forced visitor from a corner of her Empire and latterly her fondness for him. We were asked, in effect, by the director to hold the actions portrayed up to the standards of today and see that, not only were they egregious and appalling but, while the old Queen lived, they were easily overcome.
So, I wondered, is it alright to laugh? Shouldn’t I really be tutting, siding with the underdog and showing my support for the oppressed by sympathising in his plight, not laughing at his opponents? And I realised that this serious topic was being played for laughs for a reason and that’s why, ultimately, this film is a missed opportunity.
Dench played her part well, making the curmudgeonly obese Monarch a figure of determination and grit against the forces of the societal expectations heaped on her shoulders. Stephen Frears, who directed, brought out the inherent loneliness and, indeed, cruelty that is loaded upon our royal family. In what other world would this factory farming of one family to be utilised as figureheads for all occasions be permitted? It’s a form of abuse, to take the children and force them to undertake a role, like it or not for their whole lives. Some despots – the Mugabes of this world – cling onto power, but as Victoria well knew and so does our current Queen they have no power, no say so. They are mannequins, some times cherished and often castigated with no way of withdrawal without being slated as was Edward VIII.
So far as the film looked at that aspect, it worked. But the spotlight on the essentially exploitative and racist nature of the Empire was trite and clunky. Abdul was too innocent, too lacking in guile to be credible. Put upon but always coming out on top despite the dastardly white folks. That’s where Frears went for his easy chortles. He was shown never to have made any friends during his time in court, entirely isolated beyond the Queen and his family. In contrast his fellow Muslim, Mohammed had a rounded, snarky character that appeared credible and understandably gained him more respect as a result and allowed for scenes with more emotional resonance that the many more minutes involving Abdul.
This isn’t an attempt to support or justify or even, goodness knows, explain these attitudes; we all know they were there and were not thought to be wrong by the standards of the time. That’s not the point; I simply don’t believe there was no one who could see how much good Abdul was doing the Queen without wanting her to have more of it. Royal households will have been no different to any other functioning social group with people working out how to survive and how to get on – there will be givers and takes. Here we had one against them all, one who not only survived but succeeded, despite this. It was more nuanced, I am sure of it, and had that been shown, the film would have been better for it.
All that said, since it is based on the original Abdul’s journals and understood to be reasonably accurate, it portrayed a fascinating story. The acting was sharp and, as per, Dench sublime. Eddie Izzard, cross dressing stand up that he is, played Bertie, heir to the throne, with a lot of panache and stole several scenes. But the rest? Meah, cartoonish bewhiskered fools, even Gambon, for heaven’s sake. Hope he got paid well.
And I’m pleased to report that the ice cream was both rather splendid (Ben & Jerry have a new peanut chocolate cup out that counterpoints my usual vanilla rather well). And it didn’t leave my pension gasping for air, either.