In 2010, letters were discovered that revealed Queen Victoria had maintained a long, devoted friendship with a male Indian clerk. Their relationship was frowned on by the monarchy, who found foreigners and their cultures foreign and unsettling. It worked both ways. The Indians thought that the British —with their pigs’ blood sausage—were barbaric.
When we first see her highness in "Victoria and Abdul," she is literally being pulled up out of the bed by a phalanx of dressers each carrying one of the pieces of black clothing she has worn for 30 years since Albert died. (She is read her schedule for the day: “Tea party for 30,000 children.”)
Calling herself a “fat, lame impotent silly old woman”---she is one dour dowager. So when a handsome young Indian man presents her with a coin for the jubilee, she is intrigued. Clerk Abdul Karim had been chosen for the role due to his height—the primary requirement for such a ceremony. He ends up with short, cranky Mohammed when the other tall presenter is unavailable due to an incident with an elephant and the two embark on a two-month journey by ship for the brief presentation.
But 30 seconds is enough to get the Queen’s attention and Abdul becomes her munshi (teacher) and teaches her how to speak and write in Urdu. He finds it unthinkable that, although she is Empress of India, she has never seen his country, so he shares the wonders of his homeland (kind of the Indian version of Buffalove). Meanwhile Mohammed, who never wanted to go to England in the first place, ends up caught up in Abdul’s unlikely ascendance, ending up as his servant.
Although the Queen is clearly energized and rehabilitated by this new friendship, the relationship is met with panic by the royal family and staff, who are worried that she is coming under the influence of a commoner and a Muslim. Comedian Eddie Izzard as her son Bertie is terrific--suitably wheezy and apoplectic and unnerved by this interloper. When he complains that his mum is treating Abdul like a member of the family, she responds, “No, I LIKE him.”
Fans of “Victoria,” who are immersed in the early life of the Queen, will find this bookend fascinating. And the fact that she is played by Dame Judi Dench may be all you need to know. Dench is predictably fabulous -- unsurprisingly convincing as both the sad/angry Queen riding out her final days and the one slowly coming back to life after 30 years of widowhood.
Director Stephen Frears, who also directed “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, clearly understands that the success of this film is the casting of the two leads and he gets it half right. Ali Fazal, although charismatic, seems a bit out of his league. His role is not thoroughly nuanced and it is unclear whether the fault lies in his performance, the script or direction, which leaves a few unanswered questions.
Abdul ultimately falls victim to the primary occupational hazard of being in a powerful person’s inner circle: telling his boss only what she wants to hear. He is so mesmerized by Victoria that it is left to Mohammed alone to voice the anti-Imperialist perspective, leaving one to wonder, if he had been the tall, handsome coin presenter, how might history have been changed?
Now that’s a story.
"Victoria and Abdul"
3 stars (out of 4)
Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard star in true story of Queen Victoria's unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.