A timeless piece of British cinema with two superb leads in Judi Dench and Ali Fazal.
Victoria and Abdul opens with a brief prologue in India in which we are introduced to Abdul (Ali Fazal), who we follow on Danny Cohen’s handheld camera, hurrying through the crowded streets of Agra before being plucked from his job, keeping the prison ledger, by farcically British officials who might have been more at home in a Monty Python sketch. Abdul, and the second recruit Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are informed of their mission to Britain to present Victoria with the mohur (a ceremonial coin). It is only once the action shifts to Britain, and Dench takes the centre stage, that the pleasant rhythm of the film is set.
In a reprisal of her role as Queen Victoria (from John Madden’s Mrs Brown), Judi Dench plays an older and more cantankerous monarch whose unlikely friendship with a Muslim Indian, the aforementioned Fazal, brings to sharper focus the inherent racism in the British society at the time and also draws interesting parallels with today’s society, where this racism has not yet been eradicated fully.
In contrast to the introduction of Abdul, we are aware of the importance of Victoria whilst she is initially hidden, only revealed in partial glimpses of her being hoisted out of bed, dressed and briefed for the day. By comparison Abdul is seen from the off whilst his importance is revealed slowly. Dench’s first appearances are graced with the pomp and ceremony of a reigning sovereign and are fitting given that Dench is the real queen of this film. Throughout she plays a multi-faceted Victoria; portraying easily the stern authority and earthly disdain of the powerful sovereign; and yet as the film progresses we begin to see the lonely widow that Victoria has become – in her own words “everyone [she’s] loved has died, and [she]just go[es]on and on”.
It is shortly after we first see Victoria, wolfing down her luncheon and proceeding to catch a few winks before dessert in her famous widow’s attire, that the relationship between the Empress and the servant begins as Abdul ignores his instruction on royal etiquette and makes eye contact. Every effort has been taken by director Stephen Frears to highlight the differences between the two; the aforementioned initial introductions, the height difference and even the colour of their dress is used to demonstrate how unlikely a pairing they are.
The monotony of the Queen’s routine is well-established, and her yearning for fresh air in the parched conditions she lives in is further enforced by the Prime Minister’s (Michael Gambon) litany of downbeat news, therefore when the appearance of the handsome Abdul is greeted by a smile and the declaration that she “feels a great deal better now”, it is apparent that he provides a contrast against this boredom. Though the script explains easily Victoria’s motives for the friendship, Abdul’s are less well covered. He is converted to her cause instantly, whilst she gives no utterance of anti-colonialist discomfort. The failure to question this provides a large hole in Hall’s screenplay, and removes some of the potential for moral complexity and provides a slight disquiet that Fazal’s character might only be in the friendship for his personal gain. However Fazal himself projects such sincerity with every act that this is summarily dismissed.
As time passes Victoria is dismissing her other attendants with an alarming regularity as Abdul delights her with his talk of the Taj Mahal, Indian carpets and mangoes. His stories stoke in Victoria a curiosity about the country that she is Empress of. As the two become closer and the Queen makes Abdul and Mohammed her personal footmen, consternation in the royal household, headed by Henry Ponsberry (the late great Tim Pigott-Smith), grows. Whilst Mohammed adapts poorly to the climate, Abdul flourishes becoming an indispensable confidant for Victoria. In a moving scene at the private Scottish retreat near Balmoral Castle, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) forestalls comparisons with Mrs. Brown via a direct reference by Dench who contemplates her solitude to Abdul saying that “They [her court]couldn’t bear [her]bringing John Brown here”.
As she becomes hungry for more knowledge of India, she appoints Abdul as her munshi (or spiritual teacher), receiving Urdu lessons from him daily. No longer a servant, Abdul travels with the Queen to Florence where she requires little encouragement to regale the party with a particularly buoyant rendition of ‘I’m Called Little Buttercup’ from H.M.S. Pinafore. Her giddy, girlish happiness continues as Abdul takes her hand for a waltz. Unfortunately it is only to clear that this happiness will not be allowed to continue. As Victoria relies more and more on Abdul (an outsider) to the exclusion of all others, the royal household becomes more threatened and, with the return of Bertie (Victoria’s son – Eddie Izzard), tensions peak.
With the acknowledgement of a little dramatic license, the story is drawn from Shrabani Basu’s book (inspired by volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks in Urdu and by the private journals of Abdul), and is a moving account of an isolated old woman finding delight and buoyancy in her final years. Although slightly predictable, the film never stalls and the determination with which both Victoria and Abdul affirm their mutual devotion despite vocal resistance becomes steadily more touching. As Victoria’s health declines rapidly the friendship acquires genuine pathos, which is echoed in Thomas Newman’s score. Though Dench’s performance will always be the crowning glory, with her ability to pack infinite shadings into a character, Fazal provides an excellent foil for her to play against. It is the unorthodox chemistry of the two leads which gives the movie a pleasing intimacy, keeping us invested through to the mournful end.
Victoria and Abdul (2017), directed by Stephen Frears, is distributed in the UK by Focus Features and will be released in cinemas on September 15th, certificate PG.