Is there anyone else who would dare to play Queen Victoria with Judi Dench alive and well? Dench’s Victoria is a woman bored with being a queen on a routine. She has long been a widow and left without her dear John Brown. Death is approaching and she hears it better than she hears the call of life and love. Her eldest son is a disappointment and she seems to have little affection for her children. Into her life come a Muslim servant, Abdul Karim who becomes her friend. “Victoria & Abdul” is about this relationship that was scandalous for reasons of racism.
Little is actually known about Abdul Karim (1863-1909) because the personal notes and letters between them were destroyed. Karim’s family did keep his diary and some correspondence hidden, not revealing them until 2010. The book of the same name upon which this movie is based draws from Victoria’s Hindustani journal that she kept while learning the language from Karim. The author, Shrabani Basu, was able to update her book after learning about the diary that was in the possession of one of Karim’s last living relatives, the 85-year-old Begum Qamar Jehan.
The movie begins with a queen who has to be rolled out of bed and can barely stay awake for ceremonial banquets. She is obese and listless, kept in order and one time by her staff. Abdul (Ali Fazal) is a clerk who is chosen because he is tall. As if matching ponies for a carriage another tall Indian is chosen, but fate results in a shorter, fatter man being substituted, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).
Once in England, Abdul and Mohammed are dressed as the English envision Indians should look and given instructions, but not welcomed by either the staff downstairs nor the people upstairs. The fuss is about the presentation of a coin, mohar, which seems, next to the splendidly flamboyant Indian costumes rather insignificant. Straying from his instructions, Abdul catches Victoria’s eye.
That’s perfectly understandable. Fazal is tall and handsome with a winning smile. Compared to Eddie Izzard who plays Bertie, the Prince of Wales, or the late Tim Pigott-Smith who plays Victoria’s secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, he would definitely win a beauty contest. Yet looks is not enough. Victoria is genuinely interested in India, a place where she cannot travel, but is queen of.
The handsome Abdul becomes her teacher and confidante. This might have been detrimental to the Hindus because Abdul is Muslim, but that isn’t given as much importance (it is noted) as the irrational prejudice upstairs and downstairs. This is not a nostalgic look at Anglo-India relations. Akhtar’s Mohammed provides biting commentary about the misfortunes of Indians under the British, but remains loyal in friendship to his more fortunate friend Abdul.
The cruelty of Bertie as King Edward and the distress it causes Abdul are illustrated here, but not how, even from afar, Edward followed up on his somewhat churlish vendetta upon Abdul’s death.
“Victoria & Abdul” is a charming look at a friendship that bridged class, race and religion and continued on despite the advice and prejudices surrounding them. Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Queen,” “Philomena” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” directs with a light touch; there’s humor but also respect for both Victoria and Abdul. Lee Hall’s script (“Billy Elliot”) has some nice touches.
This is light-hearted look at a topic that still troubles the UK and one that also touches the United States: Friendships between Christians and Muslims and, even more simplistically, friendships that are deemed unacceptable to one’s peers. We now have an idea of how a queen handled it; perhaps that will help others take a stand on a long-standing issue.