A queen in the midst of depression | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

A queen in the midst of depression

If the flap in the social and mainstream media over comedian-host Joey de Leon’s comments on depression has triggered your curiosity and set you to wondering what people in the throes of depression are going through, I advise you to watch the movie “Victoria and Abdul.”

What does a “little film” about the friendship between Victoria, Queen of England (and Empress of India), and her Indian footman and Urdu teacher have to say about a contemporary and growing issue like depression?


Observe closely how Queen Victoria, in a majestic portrayal by Dame Judi Dench, is portrayed in the early parts of the film. Here, she is an elderly woman, imprisoned by royal convention and duty to Crown and State, and, despite the efforts of courtiers, desperately lonely and bereft. I have no doubt Victoria Regina was clinically depressed in the later stages of her life. She is portrayed as having to be roused from sleep every morning, literally raised from her bed, dressed by attendants, and, between hurried bites at mealtimes, prone to nodding off, her eyes losing focus.

Victoria, famously loyal to her duty as monarch, may not have harbored thoughts of suicide. But I believe that is only because she fiercely protected her power and her subjects. So it is with genuine joy that the viewer beholds the light that comes into her pale eyes when Abdul Kareem, a courier sent from India to deliver a commemorative medal to the Queen, dares meet her eyes and establishes a human connection.


The Queen’s depression isn’t shown to have fully lifted. There is something in her bent back, her placid, pliant pose, that tells us she is not so much relishing the time left to her on this earth as making the best of it. But the “old” Queen Victoria illustrates for us how much too often we ignore the “black dog” of depression that hounds the elderly among us.

And in the Queen’s case, how can we blame or berate her? She has lost her beloved husband Albert, with whom she had nine healthy children, after 21 years of marriage. So devoted is she to his memory that she has vowed to wear black from then on. And then she develops a friendship with her equerry John Brown, as they bond over their fondness for horses, but for which she earns the derisive address of “Mrs. Brown.” But by the time Abdul enters her life, Brown, too, has passed away.

And so, wrapped in the trappings of grief and surrounded by courtiers and even her children pursuing their own hold on power, the Queen finds an escape into a new and exotic pursuit. She is guided by her “munshi” or teacher whom she accommodates to the extent of awarding him titles, a house and various properties, and inviting him to bring his wife and mother-in-law from India.

Critics have written rather lukewarm reviews of “Victoria and Abdul,” decrying what they call the “whitewashing” of Britain’s colonization of South Asia and underplaying the jarring contrast of an Indian Muslim ensconced in the very lap of British royalty.

Much blame is laid on British actor Ali Fazal whose Abdul “is as two-dimensional as a cardboard.” It is up to Adeel Akhtar, who plays Abdul’s companion Muhammad, to give voice to Indian resentment of British colonialism, and who speaks most bitterly of the oppression and exploitation of the British Raj, which must have struck him hardest since he is expected, together with Abdul, to shuffle and kowtow to the very embodiment of British colonialism.

Still, it is the warm, personal ties between the aging Queen and the upstart “munshi” that are most compelling. The movie is based on Shrabani Basu’s book on this extraordinary friendship, deliberately erased from history by Queen Victoria’s staff and family until Basu discovered likenesses of Abdul in the Queen’s residences and discovers Abdul’s private diary in India.

The movie is touching and moving, but director Stephen Frears chooses to keep the feelings embedded in the characters, muted and barely expressed. But watch it if only for Dame Judi Dench’s masterful performance, and the exquisite recreation of a world long gone.

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TAGS: At Large, Joey de Leon, Rina Jimenez-David
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