Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins, Michael Gambon
Runtime: 121 Minutes
The story of Queen Victoria and her relationship with the young Indian servant Abdul Karim entered the public consciousness long after the events. A class of class and nationality shunned by the realm at the time following her death and correspondents burned or hidden due to the discourse it had caused in the household amongst the staff and superiors. It was proclaimed a farce, but Victoria & Abdul fits right at home with this understanding of events.
Stephen Frears’ films feel immediately identifiable more than they look it, but his workman-like attitudes to the presentation of drama – as well as an apt understanding of comedy through editing and reaction shots that feel quintessentially British – let the narrative flow so smoothly that it’s easy to forget that the actual story being told isn’t really all that complex. Lee Hall’s classically structured screenplay plays a little loose with its characters and archetypal roles, but he presses on darkness just enough at times to leave a layer of discomfort in the moment that count.
Judi Dench’s returning performance as Queen Victoria (feeling in many ways like a spiritual successor to Mrs Brown) is dizzying fun as the stuffy old monarch, snoring and slurping her way through earlier scenes as the boredom of her reign is embellished. But the sadness and desperate loneliness of the figure in her old age is tenderly felt, having lost her dear Albert nearly 30 years earlier and never fully recovered. The affection is mirrored in Ali Fazal’s role as the devoted and optimistic Abdul, caught in the fray between the dwindling stability of the monarch’s power and authority over her son Bertie, Prince of Wales – brilliantly played by Eddie Izzard – and the colourful supporting cast of Lords and Baroness’, the standouts including Olivia Williams and Paul Higgins.
The whitewashing inherent to the presentation of the sympathetic monarch in her position as Empress of India isn’t discomforting, but the decision to retrofit her position as the lone figure of progression in a household of racists and bigots isn’t without its problems. Though it is a story of tolerance and acceptance that feels shockingly relevant given the current climate of Islamophobia in the U.K. especially, it’s a trying choice that the film chooses to address through the maligned character Adeel Akhtar’s Mohammed. Brought to Great Britain against his wishes and suffering from illness due to the drastic change of climate, his silent fear, disdain and rage at the establishment and its colonial conquest of his home are felt in a fierce dialogue exchange where Akhtar’s strengths as a performer really come out.
Victoria & Abdul feels like comforting and safe viewing, padded with a reassuring string score from the always reliable Thomas Newman, but there is a bite to it in some regards. Frears directs very well, its costume and set detail is delicate, and Dench and Fazal’s performances hold it together with their charming chemistry.