Judi Dench as Queen Victoria. Not much of a stretch there. Dame Dench is so majestic, she just slips on the robe, utters the lines they hand her, and we all proclaim, “God Save the Queen!” Based on mostly real events, Ali Fazal co-stars as Abdul Karim, the Queen’s most trusted friend and closest confidant during her final years.
Not only was this relationship curious, it was outrageous. To think an Indian be equal to the vaulted British aristocracy was controversial and scandalous. So much so, that upon mumsy’s death, all correspondence and records of Abdul were destroyed by Victoria’s children. Abdul was unceremoniously deported and welcome in England no more.
This unlikely period piece plays better than one might expect. From the beginning, it’s hilarious to watch the powerful monarch go through the absurd motions of pomp and circumstance, by rote, for the sake of her office and a stuffy royal court. During her golden jubilee celebration, she catches the eye of an Indian clerk presenting a gift.
Abdul spoke to the Queen as a human being and not as a subject. He came with an innocence about him, was perceptive and receptive. At one point, Victoria explains, “Everyone I love has died and I just go on and on, what’s the point?” Abdul replies, “Service, Your Majesty. We are here for a greater purpose.”
The Queen, who is Empress of India, knows little about the country she governs and has never even been there. Abdul shares Indian life, culture and writings with her. He begins to open her eyes to the oppression of his people. As she becomes more fascinated, her family and courtiers find this “Hindu” (he is actually Muslim) a threat on many levels.
Although there is a clear level of racism and prejudice, they really don’t know much about her newly proclaimed “Munshi” (teacher). His influence could negatively impact the relationship and policies of both countries. Her nine children have also been enjoying this “football relationship” waiting for her kick off. As her eldest son protests, “You’re treating him like a member of the family!” Victoria vehemently disagrees, “No, I like him!”
Dench carries a royal gravitas and edgy vulnerability. Fazal, resembling Trevor Noah (TV’s “Daily Show”), exudes an exotic charm and modest intellect. If exploiting her weakness, he’d be no different than the royal court, other than his level of success. As their friendship deepens, the Queen reclaims her humanity and new meaning to her life.
As the crusty British elite comically stumbles over each other, they threaten to have her declared insane, as had been done with her grandfather. Victoria declares, “I am 81 years of age, have rheumatism, a collapsed uterus, am morbidly obese and deaf in one ear. I am the longest-serving monarch in world history. I’m cantankerous, boring, greedy, fat, ill-tempered and at times selfish and myopic. But am anything but insane!”
Indian journalist Shrabani Basu stumbled onto this biopic in 2003, while on tour of the Queen’s summer home. She noticed the portrait of an Indian servant, dressed as a nobleman. Curiosity led her to Windsor Castle’s 13 volumes of Victoria’s Hindustani journals, unopened for 100 years, as British biographers could not read Urdu. Hearing of her find, Abdul’s family in India presented his painstakingly preserved original diaries. This completed Basu’s ability to revive the humanity and dignity of a very special person. “Victoria and Abdul” is 111 minutes and rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. Talk about typecast. Dench played Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) as well as Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997). Returning to the role, she is now the same age as when her majesty passed away. Years from now, we assume only Helen Mirren will be qualified to play Dench.
This engaging story portrays the loneliness of power, harsh realities of racial and religious intolerance, as well as the cultural tension between privileged and common man stations in life. The discernible question is if we have we evolved or devolved over the last 120 years? If we have to ponder that question, we have bloody well failed.
Ron’s Rating: B
Leigh’s Rating: B