VICTORIA & ABDUL
OUT 15 SEPTEMBER CERT U / 106 MINS
DIRECTOR Stephen Frears CAST Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-smith, Olivia Williams
PLOT Late in her reign, the bored, stifled and mournful Queen Victoria (Dench) encounters a young Indian clerk named Abdul Kareem (Fazal). After becoming unlikely friends, their relationship deepens, with Victoria announcing Ali as her “Munshi”, or Indian Secretary — much to the consternation of her courtiers, particularly her son, Bertie (Izzard), the future King Edward VII.
TWENTY YEARS ON from John Madden’s Mrs Brown, Judi Dench is back in black, perched once more on the Imperial throne and portraying a Queen Victoria who may be much older (by 24 years, to be precise) but is no wiser (arguably) in her choice of close male companions. Dench’s return to the role that, in 1998, earned her the first of five lead actress Oscar noms suggests Victoria & Abdul is a sort-of sequel, albeit one from an entirely different creative team and in which no other actor revisits their role; Prince Bertie, for example, has transmuted from David Westhead to Eddie Izzard, on caddishly conniving form here as the villain of the piece. Writer Lee Hall doesn’t see any reason to ignore the last Dench-vic outing, and in fact embraces the cross-referencing. It’s hard to imagine the scene in which the Queen tells us how much she misses “dear John Brown” having quite the same impact with anyone else in the role.
Director Stephen Frears evidently realises this too, and having collaborated so fruitfully with Dench on both Mrs Henderson Presents (lead actress Oscar nom number three) and
Philomena (lead actress Oscar nom number five), ensures she’s here employed to maximum effect. This Victoria is a monarch trudging through the twilight of her reign, an isolated matriarch whose family just wants her out of the way. At times, during Victoria’s more painful and powerful monologues, Frears pushes his camera so close to Dame Judi’s face it’s almost uncomfortable. But boy, does it work; Dench has once more made this iconic figure engagingly, relatably and all-too-fallibly human — right down to her very pores.
You wouldn’t envy the actor who had to play the all-new A to her V. But Bollywood up-andcomer Ali Fazal gamely accepts the challenge, taking on the role of the historically smothered
(until recently, at least) Abdul Karim, and channels a buoyant charisma that makes it easy to believe that dispirited Victoria could fall for him so hard, platonically speaking. His Abdul is a cheery, optimistic naïf — a fish who’s really digging life out of water. He’s too quick to settle into the elevated niche Victoria carves for him and too blithe about the starchy British feathers he’s ruffling, but he genuinely values this cross-generational, cross-cultural friendship, gently teaching her Urdu, or enthusiastically describing for her the joys of mangos.
With all the racist sniping from the court sidelines (“She’ll be wearing a burqa next,” grumbles Michael Gambon’s Lord Salisbury) and the preposterous treatment of the friendship as a building national crisis, the film is resonant with contemporary echoes and projects them well. The ultimate treatment of the Muslim Karim and his family is abhorrent. But with its predominantly light-hearted tone, it’s perhaps too quick to excuse Abdul’s dodgier actions and largely evades the fact that he was arguably a charlatan — even if a benevolent one, both in terms of opening Victoria’s mind as well as her heart. In that sense, it lacks a layer of moral ambiguity that could have further enriched the drama.
Fortunately, this does little to tarnish the worthy double act at the hub of the narrative. One which proves both a worthy British breakout for the appealing Fazal, and provides a National Treasure™ with a second chance to achieve a Victorian Oscar victory.
VERDICT A sorta-sequel to Mrs Brown deals effectively with another of Queen Victoria’s unconventional friendships and reprises Judi Dench’s powerful and unparalleled portrayal.