Victoria & Abdul: Movie Review
Twenty years after first portraying Queen Victoria in 1997’s much-heralded Mrs. Brown, Judi Dench reprises the role in Victoria & Abdul, which, as the opening credits state with the same irreverence that the subsequent film carries, is “Based on real events...mostly.” It’s a largely fun, eminently fascinating tale that almost went untold; it wasn’t until 2010 that the story was finally made public, thanks to the release of Abdul Karim’s diary and letters from his fifteen years in the company of the Queen.
Following much of the same general plotline as Mrs. Brown, Victoria & Abdul traces the irreverent and highly frowned-upon friendship between a wholly unlikely pair—a middle-class clerk in an Indian jail and the long-reigning monarch of the world’s most vast empire. After Abdul (Ali Fazal) is chosen, based solely on his height, to travel from India to England to present a ceremonial coin to Victoria on her Golden Jubilee, the pair strike up an almost instant, unconventional companionship. She enjoys his company and matter-of-fact approach (a welcome change from the fawning she is subjected to), and he is happy to teach her about his culture, including lessons on the Koran and also his native language.
Of course her rigid staff and even more rigid son Bertie (a delightfully droll Eddie Izzard) is none too pleased with the arrangement and try everything in their power to have the Queen come to her senses and get back to her expected regal ways. But Victoria will have none of it. And we’re all the better for it, as we get to witness it all come to life.
Director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins), working from a sublime script by Lee Hall (War Horse) has endless fun bringing Abdul’s story to the screen. Even though it’s presented with a considerable level of satire and with tongues firmly planted in cheeks (the house staff, including the Queen’s personal secretary and her physician are played so broadly as to elicit frequent, genuine laughs) the underlying themes of bucking the system and tolerance and friendship-above-all shine through.
Dench, for her part, has rarely been in better form, and though older now than Victoria was at her passing, she’s showing no signs of slowing down or becoming any less stellar than she has always been, as one of the world’s leading actresses. Fazal, sporting the required charisma and talent to share the screen with the legend, deftly completes the pairing, and their resulting chemistry helps make the film one of the more delightful surprises of the fall.
It’s a true story for the ages, and even though it’s truly taken ages to finally see the light of day, Victoria & Abdul is entirely worth the wait.