Film Review: Victoria & Abdul

Judi Dench gets a second chance to portray Queen Victoria as a sharp and saucy little thing, even in her dotage, in Stephen Frears’ lavish interpretation of the little-known true story of the Queen’s close relationship with a younger Indian servant.
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No other actress was even in the running to play Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul, but director Stephen Frears did wonder if Judi Dench would be up for it, seeing that she’d been nominated for an Academy Award 20 years ago for playing the same queen in Mrs. Brown, based on another true story with a plot very similar to this one.

The earlier film covered Victoria’s well-known deep attachment to her Scottish manservant, John Brown, following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, whereas Victoria & Abdul tells the previously unknown history of the Queen’s 14-year friendship with a young Indian man, Abdul Karim, who, nearly a decade after Brown’s death, went from being a lowly servant to becoming Victoria’s teacher and close companion for the last five years of her life.

In the hands of Frears, Dench, et al., Victoria & Abdul is partly a history lesson, partly a chance to revisit the stuffy grandeur of the Victorian era and partly an excuse to let Dench, now in her 80s, display her unique comic and dramatic genius. Her acting is perhaps more subtle now, with fewer spontaneous chuckles and sharp, demanding looks, and more reliance on reflective smiles and the small, telling gesture. 

In fact, Dame Dench doesn’t say a word in Victoria & Abdul's hilarious opening sequence showing the maddeningly repetitious daily routines of a monarch who, by the late 1800s, had been on the throne for over 60 years. The Queen literally gets rolled out of bed every morning by the ladies-in-waiting who wash her, dress her and prop her up in front of her loyal subjects. Early on, for instance, she sits at the head of a long, long table which is lavishly set for a formal palace lunch—she’s a tiny bundle of black, barely visible above the perfect place setting, slurping up her soup so fast the other guests don’t get to touch theirs. For when the Queen is done, everyone’s done! Bored out of her mind, Victoria sometimes manages to catch a few winks between courses.

It is at such a moment that Victoria is presented with a visitor from India, a young man bearing a commemorative coin to mark the Queen’s year-long jubilee. The handsome Abdul (Ali Fazal) is a lowly Muslim clerk who was chosen for this mission because he’s tall and seems intelligent enough to follow orders—one of which is “Do not make eye contact with the Queen.” A mischievous sort who’s not about to throw away his shot, he does just that, of course—and Victoria takes note and decides on the spot that Abdul is just the bloke she needs to be her private manservant. After all, he’s smart and beautiful to look at, and he’s a joy to be around, for he’s willing to totally ignore—or defy—the palace protocol that’s proven so very stifling to Victoria.  

Their friendship develops quickly, spurred on by the Queen’s vast curiosity about Abdul’s homeland. Even though one of her titles is “Empress of India,” she knows very little about the country or its history, so she eagerly absorbs everything Abdul tells her—even though what he tells her often contradicts historical fact as well as the official views of the British Empire. Members of her household and the court are justifiably appalled, particularly Sir Henry (the late Tim Pigott-Smith) and the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). But it’s her son Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard, in splendid sputtering form), who’s outraged enough to finally demand the Queen’s attention.

Although Victoria & Abdul is certainly notable for its detailed recreation of Victorian-era settings—including the Queen’s beloved refuge at Balmoral, in Scotland—the great joy in watching this film comes from watching Judi Dench, who, although facing the handicaps of old age herself, nevertheless imbues the aging Victoria with an youthfully strong life force. And Dame Dench finds a worthy acting partner in Fazal, a well-known stage, film and TV actor in India whose tender and empathetic portrayal should bring him international recognition as leading-man material.

But, bottom line, how did it happen that for over a hundred years the British public was kept in the dark about a juicy piece of royal gossip such as this? Well, evidently the Royal minders wanted it that way, for immediately upon Queen Victoria’s death, her son Bertie sent Abdul back to India and destroyed all correspondence between his mother and her “munshi” (teacher)—along with the journals kept by Abdul himself. However, Bertie couldn’t read and therefore didn’t touch the journals Victoria wrote in Urdu, a language Abdul taught her, and since few if any British historians understood Urdu, the story of this unlikely pair remained unknown until the writer Shrabani Basu (who was researching a book on the history of curry) discovered Victoria’s “Hindustani” journals in 2001 and had them translated.

Victoria & Abdul does not—and cannot—sustain the buoyant humor that begins Frears’ film. But no matter that it ends in tears, because for a while we’ve had a wonderful glimpse of what it must have been like for a queen who had everything—everything, that is, except the freedom to be herself—to imagine that she was, for a while, living in a fairytale. Nice.

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