The film is based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basuand and documents the curious relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian secretary Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) during the last 15 years of her reign.
Karim, a prison clerk, is one of two Muslim men chosen to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen in her role as Empress of India. In a strange turn of events, Victoria takes a liking to him, defying tradition and protocol to employ him as a personal secretary and later teacher and spiritual advisor or “Munshi”.
Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), Victoria and Abdul is deliberate but witty, and doesn’t attempt to lean into Indian stereotypes for laughs. This is refreshing and illustrates an understanding of the shifting artistic climate.
The juxtaposition of the maternal relationship Victoria has with Karim, next to the cold and vindictive one she has with her eldest son and heir Bertie (Eddie Izzard), later to become King Edward VII, is particularly effective.
Bollywood star Fazal is charming and insouciant in his portrayal of the contrarian Karim. His unorthodox methods of servitude are often endearing rather than a source of laughs.
Dench is impressive as the revered Queen Victoria, whom she previously played in the 1997 drama Mrs Brown (a role for which she was nominated for an Oscar). Her nuances alter the character from Victoria the Queen to Victoria the person, a lonely woman worn away by age and the pressures of regency.
The cinematography, with locational filming in some of Britain’s most iconic royal residences, is superb, as are the stunningly detailed period costumes.
Victoria and Abdul is a fun exploration of a fascinating relationship between two unlikely friends, which, thanks to the best efforts of King Edward VII, was almost lost forever.
The only quibble is that it is needlessly long, and while it still manages to holds an audience’s attention, the full impact of Victoria and Karim’s relationship on the last years of Victoria’s reign could certainly have been felt without the obvious filler scenes added for extra laughs.
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