Dame Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria before in Mrs Brown, which showed the grieving monarch’s relationship with John Brown. In Victoria & Abdul Dench reprises her previous role and plays the Queen when the latter is a tad older and wiser. It also focuses on the monarch’s unlikely friendship with an Indian servant. The result is an uneven film in terms of tone but it’s also one that is a warm and rather feel-good story.
The current version of the Queen sees Dench in fine form playing Victoria as a cantankerous and jaded old lady. She falls asleep at a mouth-watering banquet and is flanked by tonnes of advisors and hangers-on (some care for Victoria while others are looking to serve their own self-interests.) Queen Victoria is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Part of the festivities will see her presented with a commemorative coin called a mohar.
Enter Abdul Karim (Bollywood star, Ali Fazal) who is chosen along with the prickly but funny Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to venture to England in order to present this gift to her majesty. The former is a poor prison clerk who is chosen for this regal role on account of his height. These men are instructed not to establish eye contact with the Queen but Abdul breaks with royal protocol and offers her majesty a warm smile. Just one look is all it takes to kick start what becomes a close friendship.
In time the Queen becomes utterly devoted to Abdul even though he is married. He becomes her trusted confidante. She defends him when members of the royal household try to undermine him. The Queen even dubs Abdul her “Munshi” or teacher because he teaches her Urdu (originally she wanted to learn Hindi and had assumed that Abdul was a Hindu. He actually believes in Islam and he teaches her about this religion and about some aspects of his culture.)
This film is directed by Stephen Frears who has worked with Dench before on Philomena and is no stranger to making films about monarchs, having previously made, The Queen. Victoria & Abdul is an extraordinary story that is based – mostly – on true events. It is written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and is based on a book by Shrabani Basu. The tone of this film is rather inconsistent. The initial meetings between the pair provide moments of comedy and fish-out-of-water material. The latter parts of the film however, show the Queen being vulnerable, isolated and lonely. It’s a very dramatic turn of events.
This movie tends to gloss over large swathes of the history from that period. The fatwa issued by a Muslim cleric in India against the Queen is briefly mentioned. The story doesn’t delve too deeply into the racial implications in the colonies, it instead presents Victoria as the Empress of a place she initially knows very little about. We also don’t get a lot of information about Abdul’s story, except his unwavering devotion to Victoria. This could be because little is known about Karim beyond his journals because a lot of the evidence supporting the pair’s relationship was destroyed by order of Victoria’s son, Bertie the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard.)
Victoria & Abdul is not the film to watch if you want social realism but it does get the costumes and locations right. The former are a visually sumptuous feast for the eyes. The latter is beautifully captured in a series of picture-perfect postcard locations like Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle and the Scottish highlands, to name a few.
Victoria & Abdul is a pleasant and optimistic look at two unlikely friends. It’s a film that may be pleasing on the eyes but is lacking in depth at times. This is a shame because this relationship is actually a rather intriguing one. Victoria & Abdul is ultimately a nice, glossy film that plays it safe and humanises this decorated monarch but don’t expect her to be dubbed the Queen of Hearts anytime soon.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Victoria & Abdul hits cinemas 14th September