Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears

Being a school principal has been a tremendously exciting and emotionally satisfying experience. Having served in such a position for over 30 years, I remember enjoying the academic challenges and the heartfelt satisfaction of helping teenagers acquire knowledge and navigate life.

But there is a reality felt by people in leadership positions, the reality of loneliness. I had many friends and fans in the communities in which I worked, but few close friends. My closest friends were my wife and my family who shared my life and were consistent beacons of support and inspiration.

Victoria and Abdul portrays the loneliness of Queen Victoria, especially after her husband, Albert, died. The narrative begins in 1887, the 50th year of her reign. To mark the celebration, two Indian Muslims are chosen at random to come to England and present the Queen with a Mohur, a special minted commemorative gold coin as a gift from British-ruled India.

At the ceremony, the Queen and Abdul, the more handsome of the two, exchange glances and the Queen becomes interested in knowing him better. It is not a romantic relationship that develops but rather an intellectual and friendly one. The Queen is simply tired of the superficial conversations she has with her British peers. Indeed, she longs for deeper connection.

Abdul becomes a favored servant and remains at the Queen’s service for 14 years, functioning as her teacher and spiritual mentor as well as confidant. The Queen admires him and enjoys his friendship while the Royal Household fumes with hatred and jealousy at this foreigner who has captured the Queen’s attention and favor. The question looming over their relationship is how and when will it end.

Elie Weisel in a provocative essay analyzing Biblical characters considers the challenge of being alone as a leader. He describes two kinds of aloneness: “solitude, which can be a wellspring of self-discovery and can provide vital energy for creative work, and isolation, which has historically been used as a tool of oppression.” Weisel describes the difference between solitude and isolation: “Solitude is often voluntary, whereas isolation is not. Isolation is compulsory, close to imprisonment, whereas solitude is sought by poets, painters, musicians, dreamers — in other words, creators. Criminals isolate themselves in their crimes, but poets free themselves and their words through and with their solitude.”

Weisel cites Moses as an example of the leader who is in the midst of his people, but who is alone at the same time. To Weisel, Moses is the loneliest of all the Biblical characters, and his loneliness is linked to his role as leader: “his solitude is linked to his extraordinary talents, virtues, and responsibilities as our people’s supreme leader. In fact, he embodies the very concept of leadership with its collective triumphs and personal disillusionments.” He recognizes that Moses, like all leaders, needs to have a certain solitary mystique around them so that they will be both respected and obeyed. However, at the same time, a leader needs to be seen as a man of the people. This ambivalence is inherent in the leader who always feels alone at the crucial moment in which he has to make a decision affecting others.

Abdul taps into the isolation of leadership and comforts Queen Victoria, especially during her senior years when her health is flagging. She laments to Abdul: “Everyone I love has died and I just go and on. What is the point?” Abdul wisely responds: “Your Majesty. We are here for a greater purpose.”

Abdul understands that one of the main satisfactions of leadership is the knowledge that you are leaving a worthwhile legacy behind. The knowledge that she has steered her country through a wide range of social and political challenges and that the country has emerged as one of the world’s strongest nations enables the Queen to let go of life and embrace a world beyond the present, a world where she can be reunited with her beloved Prince Albert.

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