Based on the book by Shrabani Basu, Stephen Frears’s biographical film details the unusual friendship between the queen of England and her Indian servant Abdul. The extraordinary story was brought to light only a few years ago and Victoria & Abdul takes place in the year 1887, when the British monarch was celebrating her golden jubilee year. The film opens with the disclaimer, 'Based on true events... mostly'. That applies to most biographical films, not just this one.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who works as a clerk in Agra’s Central Jail, is chosen to present a mohur (gold coin) to the queen. He and another man, Mohammed Baksh (Adeel Akhtar), voyage all the way to London to hand over the precious gift. However, what is supposed to be a day’s work turns into more when the cantankerous Victoria, played by the always excellent Judi Dench, decides she wants to see more of her “handsome” Indian servant.
From the start, Victoria and Abdul are taken with each other. He thinks of her as the almighty empress of India while she thinks of him as the good-looking munshi (teacher). His rise and closeness to the queen (from servant to confidant) is noted with alarm by the members of the royal household, in particular Victoria's heir Bertie, the prince of Wales (a petulant Eddie Izzard).
The moments where the two forged a close personal bond — Victoria speaking about her loneliness (she wore black her whole life after the death of her husband Albert in 1861) and Abdul teaching her Urdu (Dench adorably says, ‘Main rani hoon [I am the queen]) — are the highlights of the film. However, Bertie and the royal household’s attempts to try and discredit Abdul and banish him back to India drag the film a bit.
The director cast Indian actor Fazal in the role of a lifetime opposite the Academy award-winning Dench. Much of the film takes place in the United Kingdom at the royal household in London and Scotland and it is amazing to see the precise machinery it takes to have it running smoothly.
A special mention must be made of production designer Alan MacDonald for capturing those traditions so well. Due credit also goes to costume designer Consolata Boyle, for the colourful outfits on the cast, especially Abdul Karim’s elaborate Indian wear, through the film.
Fazal, as Abdul, takes to his new life like a fish does to water, accepting each promotion the queen offers as but natural. His character, though, seems to be a bit naive about the political machinations going on behind the scenes. Fazal is also tasked, unfairly, with saying his dialogues in the typical singsong cadence of speaking in English that outsiders think Indians have.
But Fazal's positiveness as Abdul is infectious. Meanwhile, Dench is spectacular as the aged, ailing queen. Her demeanour from the start of the film, where she is shown practically listless — literally dragged out of bed by her staff and falling asleep at ceremonial dinners — to her enthusiasm at planning a darbar room complete with a peacock throne is telling. Abdul's presence breathes new life into her dull ceremonial affairs.
At the heart of it, the film seeks to capture the closeness between the unlikely pair. With Abdul Karim, Victoria could finally reveal her innermost thoughts and fears without prejudice. He may have kept her on too high a pedestal but eventually supported her at every turn. She began to have maternal feelings for him, advising him on his marriage and asking him to think about his future.
Victoria & Abdul takes certain liberties with real-life events. In actuality, both Indian attendants had kissed her feet upon meeting her, not just Abdul, as is shown in the film, and Abdul may not have spoken English quite so fluently as is depicted. The passage of time in the film seems much shorter than the 14 years Abdul devoted in her service.
The film also glosses over the colonial rule of India in certain instances. Victoria seems far removed from the actual decision-making of her vast empire and Abdul never questions her. The only critic of the empire appears in the form of the long-suffering Baksh, who warns Abdul he is only an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure to the British and to Victoria.
This is Dench’s film completely. Twenty years ago, she played Victoria in John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997) where another man, John Brown, became her companion and close confidant. In fact, Victoria’s companion, baroness Churchill (Olivia Wilde), refers to Abdul as ‘the brown Mr Brown’. When history repeats itself, Dench as Victoria uses those previous regrets and handles adversity better the second time around.
Victoria was handled at every stage and when she began thinking for herself, her heir Bertie, the surrounding gentry and her staff run scared to have an independent thinking monarch. She slays every racist and prejudicial statement towards Abdul her staff brings up again and again and defends him steadfastly.
But after her death, it took around 60 years before the real story of their friendship to be unveiled through Victoria’s personal diaries and through official records.
Director Frears has made an intriguing feature, previously hidden from the public eye. It amplifies the drama in certain portions and comedy in another, but can't strike a fine balance. Furthermore, Frears’s film, with a screenplay by Lee Hall, does not divulge the whole truth. Those who are further interested can turn back the pages of history by researching more about the two, including Abdul’s diary and the queen’s journals.