Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is the best thing about this ornate and safe comedy-drama about the monarch's unlikely friendship with an Indian servant
It’s too good a story to let the truth get in the way of it: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is said to have struck up an intimate quasi-romantic friendship with a male Indian servant during the later years of her reign and to have made Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) her personal munshi (teacher) in defiance of court whispers and opposition. With this softly entertaining, teasing dive into the tale, director Stephen Frears (‘The Queen’) and screenwriter Lee Hall (‘Billy Elliot’) serve up a lavish rendering of late-Victorian court life, with detours to India and Italy and plenty of bite-your-tongue implausibilities along the way. Some good one-liners (‘Everything in Scotland is scratchy!’) help to cancel out some clunkers: would Victoria really have uttered anything so modern as ‘hurt my feelings’?
It’s broad stuff, loaded with eye-grabbing design and locations and peppered with fun and fruity character turns at every remove (Eddie Izzard as the aggrieved future Edward VII, Michael Gambon as the PM, Simon Callow as Puccini). So thankfully Judi Dench provides much needed weight as the Queen, playing the same role as two decades ago in ‘Mrs Brown’. But even Dench, while adeptly highlighting the vulnerabilities of age and the loneliness of power, can’t distract from the soft treatment, which leaves little room for the harsh realities of prejudice which must have made this a more painful and ugly chapter for many involved than this film ever dares suggest. ‘He’s the brown John Brown,’ is as far as the sniping goes.
Hall’s script mildly pokes fun at courtly pomposity, while eventually treating the relationship between Victoria and Karim as a balanced friendship – when surely the truth was more difficult. It's pretty obvious where the power lies here, yet most complexities are sidelined. ’Victoria and Abdul’ plays first as a gaudy fish-out-of-water ensemble comedy and only later settles into something gentler and mildly serious as Victoria begins to wane and the opposition to Karim grows. This is kid-gloves historical storytelling. It’s sometimes amusing, and occasionally touching, but there’s nothing here to scare the horses.
Cast and crew
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3.1 / 5
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I thoroughly enjoyed this classy period drama. Dame Judi as ever is A+ but Ali Fazal matched her & was very charismatic. It was funny & touching. A perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Having enjoyed "Mrs Brown" (though perhaps not as much a cinema/theatre luvvies), I was uncertain about V&Ab. My fellow audience gave much of a clue as to the age range/audience type at which this film's aimed: 60+, talking a bit too loudly among themselves as many were slightly deaf.
By no stretch is this the worst film I've seen this year, but by no stretch is it the best. The fact is, it's not very interesting. If you've seen Mrs Brown, then you understand all the 'downstairs' rivalries and hatreds, and equally those 'upstairs' among Victoria's family, politicians of the time, etc. Replace Brown with Abdul, and you've more or less got this film.
The script was poor, and tedious in places: Would an Indian servant of the late 19th century really say "You want me to dish the dirty?". This was a groan-worthy moment, in an entire script that seemed rustled up in a short lunch-hour.
Made-for-TV quality, possibly appropriate for BBC2, late one Sunday evening. One star.