Victoria & Abdul succeeds thanks to its sweet comedic moments and the fine work of Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, but does its blurring of history undermine the message at hand?
It’s been 20 years since the great Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in the much-loved Mrs. Brown (a title usually expanded to Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown), director John Madden’s charming story of the formidable old dame’s semi-scandalous friendship (and more?) with a Scottish servant played by the equally great Billy Connolly.
Now, two decades later, and director Stephen Frears (after a run of movies about real people including Muhammad Ali, Philomena Lee, Lance Armstrong and Florence Foster Jenkins) takes the reins to handle this almost as fine study of Queen Vic’s genuinely scandalous friendship with an Indian servant — a tale long suppressed, and one that probably surprised even the contemporary royals when it finally came to light.
The Lucknow-born Ali Fazal, a Bollywood favourite who came to this via the second-to-last Fast & Furious flick, is Abdul Karim, an Agra-based Muslim introduced praying back in 1887 before rushing off to his clerk job. Recognised for his skill with the English language, he’s selected by the colonial forces (who seem rather friendlier here than they surely were) and shipped off with rather shorter chum Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to present Her Majesty with a special coin as part of a ridiculously elaborate ceremony.
Advised to not speak to or look at the Queen (Judi Dench), who’s older, wearier, grumpier and lonelier than when we last saw her, he still catches her eye. She then insists that he join her for further duties and, as time passes and Fazal shines, for long chats and (romantic?) walks. Soon he’s become her ‘Munshi’, a teacher and advisor who enlightens her about Urdu and makes her feel guilty about the British rule in India, as a plum cast look on with ruling-class horror.
They’re quite a crew too, with PM Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggott-Smith, who died shortly after filming) leading the chorus of scheming disapproval, but it’s Eddie Izzard who truly impresses here as seeming buffoon Bertie (Prince of Wales, and one of the Queen’s nine disappointing children), who’s the butt of many jokes while Lee Hall’s script (drawn from Shrabani Basu’s book) keeps things broadly funny.
This isn’t necessarily a comedy either, as sweet sequences where Abdul and Mohammed make snarky comments in subtitled Hindi and the monarch is asked several times about the state of “the royal colon” give way to a somewhat surprising second half where certain truths about Abdul become clear. You have to wonder if director Frears’ intentions are to make points about modern times in this tale of the past. If so then perhaps he should have tried to make them in a film that doesn’t open with smirking acknowledgement that what you’re about to see isn’t entirely true.
No matter, though, as Dench and Fazal are tremendous and one is mostly amused.