STARRING: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Piggot-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Julian Wadham and Eddie Izzard.
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Frears
WRITTEN BY: Lee Hall
If ever we needed more proof that Dame Judi Dench is amongst our most prized national treasures, Victoria & Abdul truly is it. For the second time, Dench portrays perhaps history’s most symbolic English Queen, after her performance as a middle-aged Victoria in 1997’s Mrs Brown. That film charted her relationship with John Brown, her most trusted Scottish servant (and many historians suggest, secretly her lover), following the sudden death of her beloved Prince Albert, young, in 1861. If that picture saw a frostier, younger Victoria find a level of substitute husband in the relationship with a servant man, Stephen Frears’ movie tells the tale of a surrogate mother/son dynamic with an older, listless and softer monarch toward the end of her long and remarkable life. The result is an effortlessly charming, warm-hearted and bittersweet comedy drama.
Frears, along with screenwriter Lee Hall, craft their story from the biographical book by Shrabani Basu, which brings to life the little-known existence of Abdul Karim (played here by Ali Fazal), a lowly Indian clerk in the British Raj who comes to England in order to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin as part of a rather exorbitant function, only for Her Majesty to notice and take an immediate shine to a man she dubs ‘the Munshi’, aka a wise man or teacher.
The director ensures the tone is always played for light touch comedy, where possible; Dench’s Victoria is open to ideas, looking to find meaning in a life made up of Royal protocol and marked by the death of the only men she ever loved (happily, mention is made of Mr Brown), while Abdul is so open, earnest and kind-hearted, a true bond very quickly develops between these two most unlikely companions.
The script, admittedly, at times hits theme and subtext on the nose, but Frears’ relaxed, often sumptuous lens raises up to cinematic level what in other circumstances could have been a TV drama, in terms of scope. You feel the regal grandeur of the late Victorian age, mixed with the pomposity and ridiculousness of a household even Victoria doesn’t have any time for.
Dench portrays her with a delightful mix of grumpy indifference which gives way to joyful gaiety as Abdul comes to dominate her life with teaching her Urdu, encouraging her to try exotic fruits, and simply reminding her there is more to life and the world than Empire and ritual. Inevitably, as good as Fazal is opposite her, the film almost entirely pivots around Dame Judi and the gravity of her touching, warm and at times heartbreaking performance. This may not be a sequel to Mrs Brown but Dench’s portrayal of the Queen in two of the most important stages of her life, emotionally, now feels complete.
Inevitably there must be antagonists, even in a film principally about the final true love affair in the life of Victoria, and principally this is served through Eddie Izzard’s venomously hateful Bertie, Victoria’s son and heir who would become Edward VII, who recognises the Munshi as not just a threat to the Royal household but also the son who Victoria truly would have wanted, given he spends most of his time being a Monte Carlo playboy and disappointing his legendary mother.
In timely fashion, Frears also manages to make the conflict as much about Muslim acceptance and integration as a personal issue, with the Royal household of the day unable to countenance the significant presence of a man with an entirely different, and to them threatening, cultural background. The film both embraces Victoria’s enlightened view and isn’t afraid to show the cruel rejection of Abdul in equal measure, in a manner many viewers will relate to right now.
Admittedly, it follows a predictable narrative throughline, there’s no question of that. Victoria & Abdul probably won’t surprise anyone when it comes to the beats of story, but quite how sweet and genuinely funny the concoction is? That came as unexpected. Dench and Fazal do a wonderful job bringing a relationship forgotten by many to light, and Stephen Frears is honest at the beginning with the caption ‘this is a true story… mostly’.
A touch of whimsy his film holds close to its heart, and if it doesn’t make yours melt a little by the end, that could end up being the biggest surprise. Just lovely.
Victoria & Abdul is in cinemas now.