Director: Stephen Frears/2017
Dame Judi Dench stars as Queen Victoria in Victoria and Abdul, a film directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins, High Fidelity). That should be enough of a review to get you to a theater to see this charming unheard of tale about Queen Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly Indian servant from Agra, India, chosen to present her with a Mohur coin at a state ceremony. He and his fellow servant Mohammad (Adeel Akhtar) are strictly told to not make eye contact. Abdul disobeys, as he is in awe of the royalty in front of him, even if India resents her as the symbol of the British rule over them in 1887. What comes from that eye contact is a remarkable story, that is based on a true story….at least as the film tells us in the beginning: mostly.
At first the Queen is fascinated with this young man who passionately can speak of the beauty of carpets, and the majestic language of Urdu, over his own Hindi language. What starts as small talks leads to Abdul being made a member of the royal household with the title of “Munshi” (teacher). As this is a fictionalized version of a real relationship, some liberties are taken, but all of which make for an entertaining, and humorous experience at the theater.
The 15 year relationship between the Queen and Abdul is a fascinating one, especially since a diary of Abdul Karim and some correspondence between the two were not revealed to the public until 2010 despite Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, and Karim’s in 1909. The film comes from a screenplay by Lee Hall (Warhorse), but is based on the book Victoria and Abdul by Shrabani Basu. While much of this is fictionalized, Director Stephen Frears uses the humor and touching relationship between the queen and her royal subject to say plenty about those who would use their position and privilege to jockey for position and title only to hypocritically attack Abdul’s character for trying to better his position in life through the relationship he has with Queen Victoria. When Dench, as Victoria, looks at Abdul’s accusers and accurately nails them asking, “Don’t you do the same?”, it is a charged statement. We too are guilty of seeking the betterment of our own lives, often at the expense of others.
The royal household, including the queen’s son Bertie (Eddie Lizard) lead a minor revolt against the royal treatment this “Hindu” was receiving. He of course was Muslim, but Hindu was used more as a slur in this case by the British towards anyone from India. An example of this royal treatment was that Abdul received his own room on a train carriage, along with a bathroom, where the Prince wasn’t even afforded his own.
Ultimately, the film, as well as the actual diaries of the Queen (and supported by Abdul’s diary) charge that much of the household’s resentment of Abdul was based on race, skin tone, and general snobbery, as they didn’t think it was right that they had to accept a lowly Indian clerk as their equal. They eventually threaten to declare the Queen as “not of sound mind” to have her removed from her throne, despite being the most long-serving royal leader in history.
Victoria and Abdul is at its heart a love story, though a purely platonic one. Both Judi Dench and Ali Fazal pour their heart into the performance and create a purely convincing fictional retelling with enough truth and adherence to the facts that earns its “based on real events”. Dame Judi Dench could easily be nominated for her performance as she still continues to command the screen in her dignified, but vulnerable performance of a complicated woman who bore the weight of an Empire on her back. She also bore many personal struggles and regrets as we all do. Dench humanizes Victoria in a way that dignifies the office she held, as well as makes her relateable to any viewer who knows nothing of the royal lifestyle and politic.
In terms of character acting, Adeel Akhtar, steals many scenes, especially when told to improvise as he is about to present the Mohur coin without the use of a tray since only Abdul is given one to carry. He provides much humor throughout, but is also given a critical moment that defines his character, even in the face of enormous odds.
Victoria and Abdul may not be the type of film whose marketing will attract a large following hoping for a popcorn film filled with scares, chases, action, aliens, or explosions, but it is the type of film that will really appeal to almost everybody who sits in front of a screen playing it. For that, and the performance of Dame Judi Dench and Ali Fazel, this is a movie that won’t disappoint you…unless you want mostly historical accuracy.