Victoria and Abdul (2017)

  • Time: 112 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon


Queen Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆½ out of 5)

    GRADE: B-


    IN BRIEF: An excellent performance by Dame Judi cannot camouflage the misinformation found in its script.

    SYNOPSIS: An abridged version of a true event involving a friendship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 51 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: It is true that Queen Victoria had a special friendship with an Indian servant who gained prominence and notoriety during the later years of her reign. But in Stephen Frears’ retelling of this chapter in English history, it seems to be more fiction than fact. Playing fast and loose with the facts is an annoying trait with most biographies. And while Dame Judi Dench may rule with a heavy heart and fist as this aging monarch in Victoria and Abdul, even she should have taken issue with the fanciful screenplay written by Lee Hall.

    The film has enough pomp and circumstance and it captures the era with fine period details in its costumes and set design. Mr. Frears directs with a steady hand. The story itself is quite convincing at times, mainly due the excellent acting by Ms. Dench who reigns supreme. She conveys all the loneliness and resolve in the subtlest of ways and delivers her speeches with a knowing authority that reinforces her character’s internal suffering.

    However, Ali Fazal as Abdul is miscast. He is physically wrong for this role, too much a matinee idol dreamboat with his dark bedroom eyes and tall youthful stature, (unless this film suddenly morphed into a Bollywood musical, then the actor would be a perfect foil.) As written, the actor is no match for the acting prowess of his leading lady. Mr. Fazal plays this character in the most one dimensional of terms, more as an idealistic and devoted fool instead of the ambitious and conniving opportunist that Abdul Karim actually was. His inability to relate with his conquest throws the film off. However, the political intrigue and racism over this foreigner gaining close proximity to Her Royal Highness does ring true.

    The acting by the supporting cast is solid, particularly Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Paul Higgins, and the ever reliable Michael Gambon.

    Overall, Victoria and Abdul is melodramatic folly. It still entertains but, looking at the end credits, we see an archival photograph of the real servant and his Queen. That says it all about this foolhardy venture. As they say, truth is better than fiction.

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  • “No one really knows what it’s like to be queen,” Queen Victoria laments. Victoria & Abdul, the latest from director Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench in her second turn as the indomitable monarch, finds the royal in the winter of her life, having outlived her beloved Albert and her cherished servant John Brown. The self-described “fat, lame, impotent, silly old woman” can only go on and on, surrounded by a sycophantic household and trapped in an endless roundelay of luncheons, banquets, and ceremonies. Is it any wonder that she’s roused from her daze by Abdul (Ali Fazal) when he breaks protocol by actually looking her straight in the eyes?

    Abdul is a lowly prison clerk who, along with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are assigned to travel from India to England for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration and present her with a ceremonial token. Mohammed is skeptical, grumbling about the weather and having to be in the land of their people’s oppressor. Abdul is honoured and excited, finding it all to be an adventure, and his warmth, curiosity and, yes, good looks, endear him to Victoria, who finds both head and heart engaged in life once again as he teaches Urdu and the Koran and introduces her to Indian architecture and cuisine. Yet, as with her relationship with John Brown, the queen’s bond with Abdul is frowned upon by not only members of her royal household but those of the government as well. Her appointment of Abdul as her royal advisor is especially worrying and those concerns are further enflamed by the arrival of her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who is determined to excise Abdul from his position as the queen’s closest confidante.

    The film is satisfying enough, but perhaps a touch or two too genteel for its own good. There’s simply no bite or complexity to its telling or characterisations, especially with that of Abdul’s, who is presented as so goodhearted that to think him otherwise would be churlish. Why not shade the character for audiences to wonder if he was opportunist, guileless friend, or both? Yet, one can also understand the simplicity of the telling if only because it does warm the heart to witness the blossoming bond between Victoria and Abdul, especially in the film’s later stages as the monarch’s health begins to decline.

    As Victoria, Dench is predictably a force to be reckoned with, cantankerous and delighting in her power, her sour countenance melting as she finally finds someone with whom she can relax and be as close to herself as duty will allow.

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