The opening title card of “Victoria & Abdul,” a new historical dramedy starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, states that the movie is “Based on real events… mostly” sets the tone for what is to come. What follows is a true-life tale that doesn’t let the facts get in the way of telling a good story.
Dench returns to her Oscar nominated role of Queen Victoria. She is a frail older woman, ill of health and scheduled at society functions at a pace that would tire someone a third her age. It is her Golden Jubilee in 1887, an endless round of meetings and dinners. At one of these dinners she, as the Empress of India, is gifted with a special coin presented by Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), two young men brought in from the North Indian city of Agra for the occasion.
Both are given strict instructions. “The key to good service is standing still, moving backwards,” they’re told, “and don’t ever look at her.” Of course Abdul catches her eye, otherwise there’d be no story.
“I thought the tall one was terribly handsome,” says the Queen as she requests they become for personal footman. It’s a move that causes consternation at the palace. Racism and jealousy rear their ugly heads as Abdul is given more and more responsibility, soon becoming her Munshi, a tutor who teaches her how to write and speak Urdu.
She sees him as a breath of fresh air from the “aristocratic fools” who jockey for position around her. She’s lonely—”Everyone I’ve ever loved has died,” she says, “and I just go on and on.”— and his a chatty, amiable manner comforts her.
The staff and Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), next in line to be King, want Abdul gone and look to get dirt on him. When the monarch gets wind of the palace skulduggery she makes it clear her confidant is not going anywhere.
“Victoria & Abdul” is based on a recently uncovered story. In the days following Victoria’s death Bertie ordered all traces of her relationship with Abdul destroyed and he and his family deported back to India. It wasn’t until a hundred years later when journalist Shrabani Basu dug deep and discovered previously unseen information that the story became public.
What could have been a fascinating look at Victoria at the height of her colonial power—she is 81 years old, 62 of which have been spent ruling over almost 1,000,000,000 citizens—is instead shaped into a light weight crowd pleaser and virtual remake of 1997’s “Mrs. Brown.” In that film Billy Connolly played John Brown, a servant who provided comfort to Victoria (played again by Dench) creating a scandal that almost lead to monarchy crisis. “He’s the brown John Brown,” sneers Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) in a nod to the sense of déjà vu that hangs over the proceedings.
The big difference between the two films is the underling role. Brown was clearly defined. The Scottish servant is strong-willed, a rebel with little respect for the propriety that surrounded Victoria’s every move. Abdul is less defined. He is unquestionably devoted to the Queen, but we don’t ever really learn why. Was he a social climber, a Rasputin or a truly dedicated acolyte? We’re led to believe the latter but that doesn’t give Fazal much to work with other than his easy going on-screen charm.
Not that “Victoria & Abdul” doesn’t have enjoyable elements. It mines humour from the ridiculous royal protocol. Queen Victoria eats quickly and everyone else at an elaborate state dinner must keep pace because when she’s done, they’re all done. It’s a funny scene, made more amusing by Dench’s skilful handling of the situation.
She is by times comedic, by times touching, often in the same scene. She is masterful as Victoria, a lioness in winter grasping for a last stab at happiness in a life filled with decorum and responsibility.
If the recent film “mother!” was an attempt, as one writer suggested, “to shock its audiences out of complacency,” “Victoria & Abdul” is an attempt to lull its audience into complacency.