Victoria and Abdul
Rating: 4 / 5
They say truth is often stranger than fiction—and Victoria and Abdul is proof!
The story of this unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Muslim Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was hidden from history for decades and not unearthed until author Shrabani Basu—while researching a book on the history of curry, a dish Victoria enjoyed—stumbled across a portrait of an Indian man with Queen Victoria.
The discovery of private journals brought to light a 13-year close relationship that began when Abdul travelled to England to present Queen Victoria, Empress of India, with a commemorative medal.
Victoria and Abdul traces this most unusual friendship, and its effect on the royal household. It’s a fine film with elements of comedy, a rejuvenating friendship for a queen in her autumn years, a major clash of cultures and a bitter-sweet ending.
In 1887, Victoria is 68, and both her beloved husband Albert and her Scottish servant/friend John Brown have been gone for years. She is sad and bored, a queen with ultimate power but feeling alone and in need of a true friend.
Enter the handsome 24-year-old Indian servant who dares to look at the queen after presenting his medal and smiles at her. A spark is struck, and Victoria is intrigued by this attractive young man with the zest for life that she is missing.
As Dame Judi herself reflected on the film after making it, “Abdul was like an injection of youth and enthusiasm for Victoria. She could enjoy conversation with him, and he also afforded her something new to learn—language, culture. It was like a blood transfusion for her at the time. She adored him, and wanted to make the effort for him.”
And that is the central theme of the film, as Abdul the servant becomes her footman, and is elevated to the Indian title of ‘Munshi’ (teacher). Victoria learns the Urdu language, and learns to see her tired old world through the youthful eyes of Abdul.
It’s fairly clear that he occupies a similar position in her affections to John Brown, many years earlier. Modern audiences may conjecture on the nature of the affectionate relationship, but Victoria’s sotto voce words to him “my son” give a clue to the emotional closeness of the relationship, which lasted until her death in 1901.
However, this is not a fairytale, and the racist and class-conscious English society of the time is appalled, and tries everything to get rid of Abdul. With great tenacity, Victoria resists the pressure of her ambitious and unpleasant family and retainers but, on her death, Abdul’s fall from grace is guaranteed.
Victoria and Abdul is a sumptuous film with lots of humour and pathos, plus fine supporting performances from major English character actors Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith and Simon Callow.
But what gives the film its power is the undoubted chemistry between Dame Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, coupled with gorgeous scenery and true-life locations, including Queen Victoria’s Osborne House.
Highlight: Another towering performance from Dame Judi Dench
Red flag: Mild swearing and occasional sexual references