While the friendship between Britain’s Queen Victoria and Indian servant Abdul Karim isn’t totally unknown, giving it the big screen treatment will bring the fascinating tale to a much wider audience.
The film begins in Agra, British India, 1887, with young prison clerk Abdul (Ali Fazal) praying on a rooftop. As he rushes to work, little does he know that his life is about the change forever after he’s selected, along with another Indian citizen, to head to England and present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a special coin. Although his travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is disparaging of the freezing cold English weather, Abdul sees his appointment as an honour.
Within minutes of meeting the Queen, the handsome servant breaks protocol by looking at the head of the royal family straight in the eyes, and from then a friendship starts to blossom, which is sped up further when Abdul drops to the floor and kisses his ruler’s feet during a tea party.
It doesn’t take long before Abdul and Mohammed have been hired as full-time members of the Queen’s household, and Abdul’s openness and keenness to share his knowledge on Indian culture strikes a chord with the lonely monarch. Promoting him to a “Munshi” (teacher), Abdul not only opens the monarch’s eyes to another culture, one that she happens to preside over, but he also brings some much-needed lightness into her life.
The pair become firm friends, much to the chagrin of Victoria’s eldest son, and future King of England, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and the Queen’s private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (late actor Tim Pigott-Smith). Mohammed also isn’t too impressed and longs to get home and away from the cold.
Vindictive Bertie makes it his mission to put an end to the Munshi mania that has swept the palace, but Queen Victoria isn’t ready to roll over and allow him to, and puts up one of the last fights of her life.
Victoria and Abdul manages to mix comedy with sadness in this mostly true story, shedding light on a different part of the stony-faced monarch we’re all so familiar with.
Judi Dench is the undisputed queen of cinema, and positively shines here. It’s not the first time Dench has played a famous British monarch, it’s not even the first time she’s played Queen Vic, and audiences will love her at her regal best once again.
Bollywood heartthrob Fazal is also good, playing the endearing and wide-eyed Abdul perfectly. The supporting cast excel too, including Akhtar, who brings a lot of comic relief to the movie.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable 112 minutes. Director Stephen Frears, who’s no stranger to celebrating his home country, can add Victoria and Abdul to his long list of hits, along with The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Philomena.