I’ve been anticipating this film ever since I saw the trailer. First, it’s a historical which I love. Second, it features Queen Victoria with the famed Dame Judi Dench reprising her portrayal from the film, Mrs. Brown. Last, it shines a light on a mostly forgotten relationship between the Queen and an citizen of the Indian Empire, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). I wasn’t willing to miss this movie and my hopes were answered by phenomenal performances by the entire cast as well as a beautiful story.
As I said, this is the story of Queen Victoria and her relationship with Abdul, sent to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial medal. Both he and a compatriot Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are sent together to present it but Abdul, taller, is given the lead. Abdul is excited by the opportunity while Mohammed points out the illogic of presenting a medal to their oppressor. Both men are cautioned not to speak to the queen or make eye contact but Abdul, exhilarated by being in her presence, smiles at her. This makes her curious and she orders the pair to serve her at a lunch the next day. Abdul so wins her over that she keeps him at court. As their friendship grows and he teaches her about his culture, her fondness for him increases and so too does rancor from the rest of the household staff and her family, particularly her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard).
This is an untold story, one suppressed by those close to Queen Victoria. It is the story of friendship, of unconventional caring. In the beginning of the film, Queen Victoria is lonely, depressed, and tired of her life. Abdul brings her excitement, a friend who will listen and unconditional loyalty. Abdul teaches her about his culture, changing her vision of what the typical Indian is like. Instead of being Hindu, Abdul is Muslim. When Victoria asks to learn the language, Abdul explains there are thousands of languages within India but teaches her Urdu as the language of rulers. He gives her insight into the great monuments and the tragedy of their cultural items having been destroyed by British soldiers. Victoria, in turn, learns to respect the Indian culture and is awakened to the world around her, raising Abdul from servant class to the status of her teacher, her Munshi as she names him, and grants him status far above her household. While jealous staff and family do their best to break the pair apart, ultimately, their friendship survives.
The story of Queen Victoria and Abdul is from a book by Shrabani Basu who used a journal of Abdul’s that has only recently came to light. In bringing the story to film, the writers have done a beautiful job, weaving in aspects of Indian culture onto the landscape of Britain. They’ve encapsulated the hierarchy and bureaucracy of English society of the time, illustrating how much of the staff revolves around Queen Victoria, even the Prime Minister, played by Michael Gambon, mocking the silliness of the traditions. Even the crown prince, Bertie, waits on his mother’s pleasure, even when it is very much not to his liking. Where Victoria’s staff, including her doctor, illuminate for us how England runs, Mohammed is our viewpoint to a more cynical and possibly more realistic attitude of how the Indian people felt about their oppressors. While Abdul is enthralled with Victoria, all Mohammed wants to do is present the award and go home, only to end up stuck in England because of Abdul. The writers have given us some of the wittiest and most insightful lines in his character.
What truly helps this film excel is the characterization. Not only do we get given Queen Victoria in all her glory but also all her flaws. She is not perfect and that is what makes her glorious. The first scene opens with her gluttonously eating at a banquet and slopping food around. Not once did the writers try to pretty her up and that was perfect. Most of the British characters are equally portrayed with their petty jealousies and when, during the course of the movie, Mohammed points out that what they hate is that Abdul beats them at their own game, it is an evocative point, not only pointing to that point in history but to other moments, more recent, when people of color have risen above where white men and women of power would wish them to reach. While none of the insights are done with a heavy hand, they do give the movie more depth and are a powerful look at race.
What can I say about the acting? The true queen performance is, of course, Dame Judi Dench, both crotchety and proud in her portrayal of Victoria, emotional and her ability to make Queen Victoria momentarily less dour is no less than brilliant. Ali Fazal, a newcomer to Hollywood, gives us a performance equal to Judi Dench, both wise, exuberant, and kind. His performance brings tears, with the emotion he gives to his character. Even the minor characters were charming and humorous. Paul Higgins, who plays Dr. Reid is hilarious when his anger boils over at being ignored by Victoria and Fenella Woolgar, who plays Miss Phipps (one of Victoria’s servants), is maniacally funny in the Indian performance the Queen has Abdul put on for the court. It is the tiniest of expressions that convey their true emotions. Bertie is portrayed by Eddie Izzard as petty and jealous, vapid and shallow, a perfect foil to the more dignified Abdul and historically accurate given accounts of Bertie.
The only small detraction for me was the focus on Queen Victoria. While her character was full of depth and detail, I felt some of that was missing from Abdul. Perhaps he is meant to be more of a mystery, as information about him was suppressed and not much known but I felt details were too sparse and mostly shown through the eye of the British characters. Even as he shared his culture, it was shown only in comparison to England and I would have liked to have seen more of his interactions with those of his own society. Queen Victoria brings his wife to reside with him during his rise in her court, and while the part adds a tiny bit, I felt her presence was a lost opportunity to have more depth to his character, more discussion with someone who might have given us more insight into his thoughts and ideas.
Overall, if you love history or a new insight into Queen Victoria, you will love this film. The acting is beyond exceptional, both Judi Dench and Ali Fazal giving incredible portrayals. The secondary characters are all equally engaging. It gives us insight into little known account of Queen Victoria while illustrating aspects of how India was treated under English rule. I loved this film, finding it humorous and emotional, a truly lovely story.
Rating 4.5 stars
The extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Academy Award winner Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Ruth McCabe, Tim Pigott-Smith, Julian Wadham, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar
Director: Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena,” “Mrs. Henderson Presents”)
Writer: Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), based on Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu