Victoria and Abdul

1hr 52mins | Rated PG

Starring: Michael Gambon, Judi Dench, Olivia Williams, Simon Callow, Stephen Frears

Late in her reign, the bored, stifled and mournful Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) encounters a young Indian clerk named Abdul Kareem (Ali 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 (Eddie 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.
Director Stephen Frears, having collaborated so fruitfully with Dench on both Mrs Henderson Presents and Philomena, 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-and-comer Ali Fazal gamely accepts the challenge, taking on the role of 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 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 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.
Empire Magazine