Victoria and Abdul, rated PG-13
With the ending of season two of the excellent television series Victoria, if you want more to feed your Queen Victoria fix, you might want to check out this film. But it’s a very different Queen Victoria that you encounter in this film than the young Victoria portrayed by Jenna Coleman in the television series.
The film is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen, The Grifters). Oscar nominee Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) wrote the screenplay based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu. The film received two Oscar nominations – Daniel Phillips and Loulia Sheppard for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling and Consolata Boyle for Best Achievement in Costume Design. The film tells about the unlikely friendship between the aging Queen Victoria and the 24-year-old Muslim from India, Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal. The film and book are based on diaries kept both by Queen Victoria and Karim.
As the film opens, Queen Victoria, played for the second time by Judi Dench (seven-time Oscar nominee and winner for Shakespeare in Love), is going through the motions. She is depressed, lonely, surly and has little patience for others. She is awoken and dressed by her staff. Her scheduled days are spent by attending endless event after event, and we see her dozing off during them. It has been thirty years since the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. She seems to have little reason to live and is disappointed by her nine children, especially son Bertie, the next in line for the throne, played by two-time Emmy winner Eddie Izzard (Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill).
In 1887, Abdul Karim, a prison clerk, chosen because he was tall, and Mohammed Buksh, played by Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager), chosen because the originally chosen tall Indian was injured, make the 5,000-mile journey to England to present the Queen, who is also the Empress of India, with a gift to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and 29th year of British rule in India. While Abdul is excited about the trip, Mohammed is not. He resents everything about the empire which overthrew his own government, and he just longs to return home.
As they arrive at Windsor Castle to present the gift to the Queen, they receive very specific instructions on how to approach the Queen, including not to make eye contact with Victoria. But Abdul does just that. This begins an unlikely friendship between the two, which lasts the remaining fifteen years of Victoria’s life.
Victoria first appoints Abdul to be her personal servant, though Mohammed remains a common servant. Adbul is a Muslim who tells Victoria about his world and culture. Throughout the film, we don’t always know if Abdul is being completely truthful with Victoria about his life or not. Soon, the lonely Victoria, the head of the Church of England, asks Abdul to become her spiritual teacher, or Munshi. We see him begin to teach her about the Koran, and to write in Hindi, all to the disgust of the Queen’s court, household and administration who decide that Abdul, whom they refer to as “the Hindu”, must go.
The solid supporting cast is led by Izzard as Bertie, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Phipps, the head royal housekeeper, Golden Globe nominee Michael Gambon (Path to War and Harry Potter films) as the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as Doctor Reid and Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby.
The movie is beautifully filmed, from the Taj Mahal to Windsor Castle, with impressive costumes. Judi Dench, as always, is fantastic in her role as Queen Victoria.
Content concerns include some adult language, including a few abuses of God’s and Jesus’s names. Some will also be concerned about how very positively and one dimensionally the Islam religion is portrayed in this film, and the inference that Queen Victoria converted to Islam near the end of her life.
Themes in the film include loneliness, friendship, racism, jealousy, and religion.
Victoria and Abdul will appeal to those wanting to know more about this little- known relationship between Victoria and Abdul over the last fifteen years of her life. The film is said to be “based on true events, mostly”, which leads one to wonder just how much of it is true.