A little-known episode from the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign provides the inspiration for this unexpected odd-couple comedy drama, which reflects upon changing British attitudes towards India. The fact that one of Victoria’s regal titles was “Empress of India” didn’t alter the fact she never visited the place, but this adaptation of journalist Shrabani Basu’s non-fiction study brings to light certain recent discoveries suggesting the Queen may actually have been more open-minded and curious about India and its rich culture than many others at the Palace.
As Judi Dench returns to a role she first played 20 years ago in Mrs Brown, the unlikely catalyst for Victoria’s late-flowering fascination with the subcontinent is one Abdul Karim (played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal), a low-born local picked from staff at a prison in Agra to present a commemorative coin at a Windsor Castle banquet.
Initially, it’s his handsome smile that captures the attention of the ageing and lonely monarch, whose welcoming attitude towards this Muslim newcomer contrasts with the outright hostility displayed by many of the royal household. Soon he’s teaching Urdu to the monarch and explaining the wonders of mango chutney, yet it’s the developing emotional bond between handsome servant and isolated widow which makes the film something of a companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, an exploration of another upstairs/downstairs friendship earlier in Victoria’s reign.
Victoria and Abdul proves a much livelier affair all-round however, thanks to the sly humour with which Stephen Frears’s film highlights the ingrained snobbery of palace routine, and indeed an even more striking performance from Dame Judi, presented at first in far-from-flattering terms like some jowly old toad in regal garb scoffing her way to oblivion for the want of any other joy in life.
Behind the glowering looks, however, she’s on peak form here conveying the telling contrast between Victoria’s surprising feminine vulnerability and the indomitable spirit she can call on when her household and family close ranks against her beloved Abdul – the one she dubs her “Munshi”, or spiritual teacher.
Ali Fazal’s gentle charisma certainly sells the role, but some might wonder whether Abdul’s a bit too twinkly to be true, or whether his smiling deference to Her Majesty is a bit too wedded to the submissive values of a bygone age. That said, the film does float the idea that he’s cannily exploiting the privileges afforded to him by royal favouritism, and there’s certainly much enthusiastic knockabout at the expense of the patronising imperial attitudes prevalent elsewhere at court.
Sure, Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall’s dialogue is also a tad too modern-sounding at times, yet overall there’s both pointed mischief and genuine emotion in abundance as this fascinating true story emerges from the shadows of history.
To portray Queen Victoria as a pioneering multiculturalist perhaps errs on the side of generosity, yet it’s surprising how much still rings true in this fable about Britain’s intoxication with the idea of India… as long as the more troubling reality remains safely at arm’s length.
Victoria and Abdul opens in cinemas on Friday 15th September.