Queen Victoria reigned over England from the age of eighteen until her death at the age of eighty-one. Abdul Karim was a Muslim born in India who served as a clerk at a jail in Agra. He was chosen to travel to England and work as a royal servant. The Queen took a liking to him and he soon became her teacher, schooling her in Urdu. Abdul was only twenty-four when he first got to England and he served Victoria for the last fifteen years of her life.
Stephen Frears’ (director of the 2013 Judi Dench film Philomena) historical drama Victoria and Abdul tells this story in a pleasant and well-made film greatly aided by the decision to cast the invaluable Dame Judi Dench as the older, and very stubborn, Queen Victoria. She brings wisdom, loneliness and mischievousness to the role. As the story is presented here (it says right at the beginning that it is mostly based on a true story; it is also an adaptation of a 2010 book by Shrabani Basu), she is tired of being treated like a pawn to be moved around at the whim of her advisors. She becomes fascinated with Abdul because he treats her like a person who happens to be a queen.
Abdul is played by Ali Fazal with a little too much of the cliché “exotic foreigner” in him. But he is kind and smart and is able to convey a sweetness that makes his relationship with Queen Victoria charming. I do not entirely believe that their relationship was exactly as shown, but the film was pleasurable enough that I did not think about that while I was watching it.
The drama in the film comes from the resistance the rest of the Queen’s household has toward this outsider to their world. Abdul is not just an Indian and not just a Muslim. He is also lower class and uneducated. To them, his presence is absurd. But Victoria does not care. She is Empress of India, yet knows nothing of that place or its people. This man knows things about the world that she does not and is not afraid to share it with her. The fact that he does so with equal parts respect and humanity draws her to him in a way that alarms those closest to her. Dench plays her scenes with Fazal with a joy and curiosity that is a delight to watch.
Victoria and Abdul (104 minutes before the end credits) is just a pleasant time at the movies. It breaks no new ground as a film and probably will not teach you anything about Queen Victoria or the British monarchy. However, one of the pleasures of the cinema is enjoying the company of some good actors playing likable characters for a couple of hours. At that, Victoria and Abdul is successful.
3¼ out of 5
Judi Dench as Queen Victoria
Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim
Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby
Eddie Izzard as Bertie
Adeel Akhtar as Mohammed
Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury
Paul Higgins as Dr. Reid
Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill
Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by Lee Hall